The Clare Spark Blog

October 4, 2011

Coulter’s demons, Melville, John Adams on the late 18th C.

Ann Coulter. Demonic: How the Liberal Mob is Endangering America. New York: Crown Forum, 2011. 354 pages. $28.99.

Best-selling author Ann Coulter, with 19th century ultra-conservative French writer Gustave Le Bon for backup, has determined that the liberals of the US today are a hysterical mob, given to group-think and heinous atrocities, depicted here in detail as she pivots from the enraged French scum to such favorite targets as MSNBC, Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann, the better for our sick delectation. Upon reflection as I look at her repeated examples, it seems to me that her pages depicting mob-driven mayhem (600,000 French casualties!) are to be compared to 53 million unborn babies massacred by her arch-enemies, pro-choice feminists. She has just as little love for The Declaration of the Rights of Man,* gays, androgynes, liberal Jews (all Jews?), and other women, the latter the objects of Le Bon’s contempt as well.

This is most ironic, for whereas Le Bon was an irrationalist, but a secularist pondering how to control the lower orders since revealed religion (allied with arbitrary authority), had lost its gleam, Coulter, flying his counter-Enlightenment flag, allies herself with the divinely-inspired rationalism she imputes to Anglo-Saxons, the American Revolution, and the Federalist Papers. Such “harmonious order,” delivered by rules-regulated, mob-smashing, yet calm leadership, is invidiously compared to the “Latin” nations’ proclivity for cannibalism, blood lust, tumult and mindless, i.e., womanish, violence. Coulter may be one of the last respectable nativists.

As a book claiming “political science” status, Demonic is so wild and undisciplined that it hardly bears further discussion. Some of her more egregious howlers: 1. The most romantic radicals of the 1960s are conflated with their liberal opponents. Think of the Chicago Democratic Convention of 1968, where liberals were the target of the Weathermen and other radicals. 2. Coulter is a conservative, who uses Republicans mostly to suit her argument. Hence, they are useful as anti-racists during the Civil War and Reconstruction, but she does not distinguish between Conservative and Radical Republicans, who had divergent agendas; it was such as Sumner and Stevens who put civil and economic rights for the freedmen at the top of their must-do lists, and before that, Alexander Hamilton’s antislavery position got him labeled as an abolitionist by the Jeffersonians who sought to tear him down from his own lifetime to ours. (See Stephen F. Knott’s book for the juicy details.)

I prefer to compare her pornographic rant to some leaves from Herman Melville’s manuscript, “Billy Budd, Sailor: an inside narrative” for his last composition (unpublished in his lifetime) also pondered the contested legacy of the French Revolution, clearly the subject of his [always controversial and enigmatic] novella:

[Melville, as published in Weaver’s Constable edition, vol.13, not available on the internet:] “The year 1797, the year of this narrative, belongs to a period which as every thinker now feels, involved a crisis for Christendom not exceeded in its undetermined momentousness at the time by any other era whereof there is record. The opening proposition made by the Spirit of that Age, involved the rectification of the Old World’s hereditary wrongs. In France, to some extent this was bloodily effected. But what then? Straightway the Revolution itself became a wrongdoer, one more oppressive than the Kings, and initiated that prolonged agony of general war that ended in Waterloo. During those years not the wisest could have foreseen that the outcome of all would be what in some thinkers apparently it has since turned out to be, a political advance along nearly the whole line for Europeans.”

In the first part of this statement, Melville takes the same dim view of the French Revolution as Coulter and the most ultraconservative thinkers of the period. But he leaves the question open, asking the reader to think very hard and for him/herself, given the more positive views of significant philosophers (e.g. John Stuart Mill) who wrote during his lifetime. Melville was an American patriot and a great admirer of the Declaration of Independence, “that makes a difference” as he wrote to a friend. But for Coulter, Thomas Jefferson is too Frenchified, even a “flake,” and she much prefers the godly [Anglophile] John Adams. But what should she have made of this much reproduced and discussed quote from Adams, clearly aligning the Constitution with the Enlightenment, and with the intonations of Prometheus?

Tom Paine Press image for Billy Budd opera

[Adams:] “The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature; and if men are now sufficiently enlightened to disabuse themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition, they will consider this event as an era in their history. Although the detail of the formation of the American governments is at present little known or regarded either in Europe or in America, it may hereafter become an object of curiosity. It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of Heaven, more than those at work upon ships or houses, or laboring in merchandise or agriculture; it will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses.”

*At a book talk in Los Angeles, Coulter stated that the French have no conception of individual rights. The Rousseau-maddened Jacobin mob leads directly to Hitler and Mussolini. This is the same line advanced by Jonah Goldberg in his Liberal Fascism. See my discussion of the latter here: https://clarespark.com/2010/03/10/jonah-goldbergs-liberal-fascism-part-one/.

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May 16, 2011

Questions for education reformers

Bernard Mandeville’s most famous work

I have been corresponding with Eva Moskowitz,  a leader in NYC education reform. She is involved with the Charter School movement (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charter_schools), and has a well-researched critique of the “therapeutic” culture that has distorted our education system since the late 19th century, most recently in the emphasis on “self-esteem” in the multicultural curriculum. Her book illuminated for me some of the “progressive” precursors to New Age thinking, a psychology cult that is particularly strong in California, and which is both silly and dangerous.

What follows are some of my initial thoughts about obstacles to reforming our schools, with some special attention to the charter school movement, though that is not the focus of this blog. I have included links to earlier blogs on this website.

1. Fragmentation of the professions:  because of the way that college education evolved, the holistic “philosophic” approach of such thinkers as Bernard Mandeville (an influence on Adam Smith) or Locke or other enlightened thinkers has gone out the window. None of the greats would have looked at schools in a vacuum. See for instance my notes on Charles Sumner (https://clarespark.com/2009/10/05/charles-sumner-moderate-conservative-on-lifelong-learning/) or my posting on Walter Lippmann (https://clarespark.com/2009/08/19/noam-chomskys-misrepresentation-of-walter-lippmanns-chief-ideas-on-manufacturing-consent/).
For instance, can we talk about schools without a consideration of the welfare state and its particular policies? Or the aim of many “liberals” who seek “stability” and “social cohesion” at the expense of learning how to master life skills? And what about those religions that teach submission to authority without ever distinguishing between legitimate authority and arbitrary authority? In a pluralistic society, are vouchers the only solution to the problem I have posed? Are some religious schools enemies to an intellectually vigorous polity?

2. Is teaching a profession, or are teachers workers? When I was in school (first round, mid-50s), the burning question was whether or not teachers were a profession. In medieval times, there were artisan guilds that strictly enforced the quality of their product and there were tight restrictions regulating entry into the guild. But teachers unions do not aim for a better product (do they?) but seem to be focused on protecting teachers from measurement. Are teachers like factory workers in the 19th century? I don’t think so. Charter schools are reforms within the public education system, and were the offspring of Albert Shanker of the AFT.  Should the teachers unions be broken, or can charter schools fire incompetents and reward energetic and effective teachers?

3. On overcoming multiculturalism. See https://clarespark.com/2011/02/11/undoing-multiculturalism/. But there is another one that lays out the precursors to today’s institutionalized MC: https://clarespark.com/2010/07/20/german-romantic-predecessors-to-multiculturalism/.  The remedy to MC, I believe, is the teaching of fact-based science, but also the history of “scientific racism.”That would uncover the racialist premises of MC. Moreover, it could clarify the difference between national identity based on a common set of laws (Gesellschaft), versus “national identity” based on group cultural character (Gemeinschaft and its exuded “Zeitgeist”). The latter is mystical and collectivist, the former is materialist and concrete. As I have shown in all my work, the German Romantics, from Herder to Hegel to Fichte, advocated a philosophy that led to state worship and ultimately laid the basis for the Nazi racial state. There was a big Herder revival in the Third Reich, while the new “race pedagogy” supposedly inspired by Franz Boas relied on Herder at the same time (1916) that Randolph Bourne was advocating hyphenated Americanism in opposition to the melting pot of the big cities.

4. On curriculum development and rigor. With the exception of some of America’s Founding Fathers, no elite has ever been unequivocally dedicated to an excellent popular education for all. The liberal foundations were organized to prevent revolution from below, even before the second world war. Redistributive justice (as opposed to commutative justice) was their mantra. They didn’t care about learning and uplifting the population to become responsible citizens in a democratic republic.  Enter social studies and the “progressive” rejection of the 19th century as dominated by heartless laissez-faire capitalists who mowed down everything in their paths.

A high school graduate who does not understand markets, monetary policy, accounting (including cost-benefit analysis) and competing economic theories cannot vote with wisdom or even defend her or his own interests. They will be prey to demagogues practiced in promoting conspiracy theories (e.g., antisemitism/”the money power”, “white skin privilege”) and diverting the masses from understanding how wealth is created and how economies expand.

Are today’s “experts” in child development competent to instruct the reformer about what is possible to teach at different ages? According to my correspondent, the “experts” discourage strong content at early ages. Speaking personally, I was hugely bored throughout my public school education. From at least the French Revolution on, European and American elites have feared the effect of mass literacy and numeracy, and did not sit idly back while new classes and individuals threatened them with dispossession. I am not writing this with my old red hat on. It applies to everyone. Compare contemporary American education with that of the education of European aristocracies. From early childhood on, they were made aware of world affairs, learned foreign languages, music, art history, read great essayists, poetry, and learned the art of managing the lower orders (politics). They detested America as the land of savages (i.e., those who had escaped their control and were rising to challenge them from afar).

The point of this last paragraph is to suggest that we are systematically underestimating the capacity of “ordinary people” to learn. There were many dumb aristocrats (see Disraeli  novels for a good yuk), and yet they managed to reproduce their rule through clever co-opting of threats from below. American elites did the same with the civil rights movement, fusing the integrationists with the black power militant types. The result? Victimology and the dumbing down of American education, with a spicy dash of primitivism—the rejection of Puritanism a.k.a. middle class values enforced by women, and the fantasy that [orgiastic] tribal societies unleashed the repressed instincts. There are critics from the Far Right who are tirelessly attacking American education for its shallow content; Charlotte Iserbyt is one of them. Like Nesta Webster, a fascist and antisemite (see https://clarespark.com/2009/09/20/jungians-on-the-loose-part-two/), for Iserbyt the enemy is “materialism,” an epistemology that she believes erases “free will.” Within such a pseudo-critical framework, fundamentalist to the core, it is impossible to teach history or science, and Iserbyt, for one, is hotly opposed to the charter school movement. Such persons should not be shrugged off as fringe critics, for a large part of the American electorate shares similar anti-intellectualism–it is the legacy of populism.

May 17, 2010

Beethoven, A Clockwork Orange, and rosy Prometheans

Beethoven, colored as black by an Afrocentrist

My roses are in hectic bloom and vegetable seeds are sprouting in the back yard.  My cousin Victor Rosenbaum, a concert pianist, was practicing at my house for a concert tonight in a Southern California university, and as I listened to his program of Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, and Chopin, and, given the season, I thought once again of the astonishing flowering of Romantic music during the late 18th and early nineteenth centuries in Europe, the repertoire most favored by my cousin and that continues to beguile my own imagination.  I thought too of some hard things I have said about self-styled “traditionalists” who believe that “secularism” is leading us down the path to perdition.

Recall the film A Clockwork Orange, with a script by Anthony Burgess, and based on his novel, but directed (some say misdirected and botched) by Stanley Kubrick. In the film, the thuggish street urchins who killed at random were seemingly inspired by Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.* I was frightened and bewildered when I saw the movie long ago, and disappointed that it was considered to be a triumph of vanguard movie-making by a John Cage-influenced composer teaching at California Institute of the Arts (1971). Today I am not so shocked. The Pelagian-Promethean impulse, though essential to the understanding of such ambivalent writers as Goethe or Herman Melville, is now discredited by leading intellectuals and politicians as Jacobin, or Napoleonic, and leading ineluctably to catastrophic mob rule or the debauched tastes of “mass society.” Also, there is a clear track from the Jacobins to Nazism and Communism in the writing of some other figures on the Right, despite an entirely different genealogy described persuasively by Frank E. Manuel in his The Prophets of Paris (1962): Turgot, Condorcet, Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Comte.

I am thinking of some of the traditionalist figures on the Right criticized in prior blogs: Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, and Newt Gingrich, who claim that our Constitution was God-given and hence not the conscious creation of the Founding Fathers, themselves building upon such prior intellectuals as Spinoza, Montesquieu, or other figures of the European Enlightenment who had theorized a republican form of government. Yet, if one reads the correspondence of John Adams, Abigail Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, it is clear that they viewed their efforts at inventing a republic as experimental.  And like the New England radical Protestants who preceded them, they understood that their efforts would be nil without universal literacy.  Do those influential figures of the Right (mentioned above), while advocating “free will” and “personal responsibility,” diminish the power of human creativity by attributing all of our Constitutional liberties to the will of God? Do our young people even experience European Romanticism and/or the related literary movements described today as realism and naturalism, all of which, with modern technology in the reproduction of great music and literature, had appeal to a larger public than the aristocracy that originally paid for them?

*Since writing this blog, I read the Burgess novel. It is a tour de force in that Burgess invented a special language for Alex the narrator, drawn from Slavic tongues. After a while, one figures out what the neologisms mean. But the main theme is an attack on all Enlightenment projects that are in any way derived from Rousseau. Like Orwell, Burgess was criticizing the statism and optimism of social democracy (I am using the term loosely), for in his medieval Catholic mentality, the notion that man could be made good and peaceful was a utopian illusion.  Burgess himself was a music lover, and Alex’s delight in Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, and other classical composers is probably a hint that Alex represents the daemonic side of Burgess’s own character. One must remember that modern artists could view themselves as the Devil’s minions, for they were usurping priestly authority in their manufacture of imaginary worlds. When Alex is subjected to behavior modification, he is outraged that Beethoven’s Ninth is used in the sound track that accompanies pictures of terrible brutality, hence makes him physically ill until he attempts suicide, injuring his brain and removing the vile associations that made him averse to his prior random brutality. He ends up renouncing his romantic adolescence as he enters adulthood and resolves to find a wife.

November 18, 2009

The radicalism of the Founders and Herman Melville

New York Times, 8/26/86, I.23

Bookes into Dragon’s Teeth

How was it possible for Henry A. Murray or Charles Olson or Jay Leyda (all father-figures to many New Left intellectuals) to have read Melville as Hitler, as Jew, as White-Jacket, or Ahab, or Margoth?  How could this organic conservative be anathematized by other organic conservatives?  Melville was accused of exaggerating the suffering of sailors and other workers, hence lending the prestige of an upper-class witness to their grievances; and moreover he refused to turn ruthlessness into Christian charity: though Might was forced by circumstances to be harsh, that didn’t make it Right; authority was demented if it thought otherwise.  Anyway, the more alert members of the lower orders  saw through their double-talking; obscurantist “doctors” and philanthropy were too weak as remedies to correct the inhuman character and the violence of early industrialism and the newspaper-reading “mobocracy.”  It was Melville’s insistence that Christian morality be lived out in everyday life along with his refusal to idealize either leaders or the led, that made him a Jew to “pragmatists” patrolling the perimeters of dissent, spotting possible defectors to another class, escapees who had the self-assurance to lead meaningful reforms.  His darts at confidence-men pierced the very heart of the corporatist liberal project and its attempts to turn the stony prisons of class into sunny meadows (See Bartleby: “I know where I am.”)

Melville’s reservations about democracy as it existed during his lifetime (1819-1891) did not deviate from those of Thomas Paine or of Thomas Jefferson, Abigail and John Adams in their correspondence during the early national period:  There could be no informed political choice without universal training in critical thought; the press would be a negative influence insofar as it spread rumors and libels with no equally accessible corrective institutions to challenge them; Catholic immigrants, they feared, inured to obedience to the reactionary church, would undermine rational political processes; similarly Americans should not impose their system of democratic republican government upon foreign peoples (e.g. Spanish-speaking America) still in thrall to autocratic rule; the love of money would doubtless undermine the civil liberties they had fought so hard to establish; it would take hundreds of years for democracy to take hold and there would be periods of regression, but literacy and the presence of mass-produced books would prevent a thoroughgoing return to the Middle Ages.  Such were the fulminations of Hume’s “fanatics”: Lockean radical puritans and deists assessing the obstacles to a fully realized popular sovereignty; with Melville, neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but realistic.[1]


[1] See The Adams-Jefferson Letters, ed. Lester J. Cappon (Chapel Hill: U. North Carolina  Press, 1959). As I have argued above, Jeffersonian agrarian principles could also undermine democratic reforms insofar as they were coopted by Southern apologists for slavery and white supremacy. But in this instance I am referring solely to the question of free thought and popular education.

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