The Clare Spark Blog

May 27, 2013

SMASH: the perfect liberal backstage musical

Caravaggio: Amor Vincit Omnia

Caravaggio: Amor Vincit Omnia

SMASH had its “season finale” on March 26, 2013, but it has been cancelled. This blog tries to do two things: 1. To compare its optimism with some musical predecessors written from the Left (CABARET and CHICAGO) both of which stressed decadence and civic corruption; and 2. To note how SMASH catered to its liberal audience (feminists, gays) replicating the usual double binds that social democrats cannot escape. In this case, competition and compassion co-exist without strain; moreover it left unresolved the more controversial feminist and gay activist claims—on abortion, and whether or not all men are really gay, notwithstanding their protestations to the contrary. (For a prior blog on SMASH see ttp://clarespark.com/2012/05/18/smash-season-finales-and-the-demonic/.)

CABARET and CHICAGO, though laid in different periods, both remind us of the Weimar culture’s sardonic, mocking tone of Brecht and Weill’s THREEPENNY OPERA, a great hit in NYC when I was a teenager. I remember enjoying CABARET, but being instructed by one critic that its intertwined themes of decadence and growing support for Nazism were ahistoric and misleading, I thought about it with more skepticism. Indeed, upon reflection, one of Nazism’s appeal was to replace the corrupt, crime-ridden “jewified,” hyper-sexualized and materialist City with the wholesome simplicity of rural family values and family cohesion. Sex roles in Hitler’s Germany were clearly defined, with sharp physical and role differences posited between men and women. This was made clear enough in CABARET.

I have just described a culturalist explanation for the rise of Hitler, one that ignores his chief aims: expansion into Eastern Europe for purposes of Lebensraum, and his second but primary aim: to destroy the growing Communist Party in Germany, and by extension to destroy the Soviet Union (believed to be a “socialist” front for finance capital, which is why Nazis referred to “Jewish Bolshevism”).

[I have written before about the false belief, current among the American Right, that Hitler was a man of the Left, “proven” by the word “Socialist” in the title of the Nazi Party. But “socialism” to the Nazis meant the willingness to sacrifice one’s individuality and life for the sake of the purified racial state: “the people’s community” or Volk.]

Moving on to SMASH: this expensively funded television show was originally to be a backstage look at the business of theater in NYC. Though funding a Broadway show was one dominant theme of the series (money causes havoc with writers and casting), the writers never brought up craft unions as a factor in driving up the cost of Broadway shows and discouraging innovation and originality because of union rules. (This point applies to Broadway, films, and television. Producers are seen as the bad guys, with formulaic story lines a function of marketing to the great unwashed and unlettered. In SMASH, there is rivalry between two divorced producers: the competitive, evil and vindictive Michael Cristofer, with the good producer who elicits our sympathy, the compassionate Angelica Huston, who is so unblemished by class snobbery that she falls in love with a scruffy fellow from the lower orders.)

The theme of competition versus teamwork ran throughout the series: Katherine MacPhee competes with Megan Hilty for the role of Marilyn Monroe in a musical called BOMBSHELL. At the very end of the second season, the two rivals mimic the end of CHICAGO, where the once competitive Katherine Zeta-Jones and Renee Zellweger join in a raunchy “sister act” that celebrates sex and gangster gun violence, with wild audience applause. Similarly, in SMASH, the two actresses wear burlesque-type costumes, swing their booties, and go off as friends: the audience can love both of them, especially as “Ivy” (though impregnated by the womanizing director played by Jack Davenport), rehabilitates their relationship and we don’t know if she will have his baby and jeopardize her promising career as a Broadway Tony-winning star or not. Amor Vincit Omnia. Indeed, all relationships that were threatened with dissolution are reinstated in the two-hour finale, but without resolving the most sensitive subjects: abortion and gayness (or bisexuality) as normative.

On the gay front: Christian Borle’s character, overtly gay and a sensitive collaborator with his writer and lyricist Debra Messing, meets a “straight” Hollywood star who is kissed by Borle, and the two collaborators go off to Hollywood where their once-threatened partnership will flower again, presumably with romantic love interest for Borle with a straight man who is really gay.

Another evasion: in season one, Debra Messing had an affair with Will Chase, an affair that broke up her marriage. Yet in the finale, she is pictured at her lover’s door, ready to resume their affair, yet Chase had a wife and a family in season one. But not to worry, for Amor Vincit Omnia.

Progressive optimism rules in this television tribute to the magical world of “live theater” (!!!!) and we learn once more that the world of the theater, on Broadway or Off, is enclosed within its tight little relationships, in which all wars end, magically.

Caravaggio: Resurrection

Caravaggio: Resurrection

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March 31, 2012

Nell Painter’s History of White People

Rather than summarize the scope of Nell Painter’s book, I ask you to read this review by a sympathetic colleague. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/28/books/review/Gordon-t.html?pagewanted=all.

As  Linda Gordon’s NYT review makes clear, Nell Irvin Painter, a much honored historian, has written The History of White People (Norton, 2010), directing this synoptic intellectual/cultural history to a popular audience, hence biting off too big a chunk of history. Not so surprisingly, Professor Gordon, a well-known left-feminist, does not launch an ideological critique, for she shares the same social democratic/New Deal belief system. Gordon is a noted historian of the welfare state and feminist issues, but since she is of the same faction as Painter, she could not identify the slant of Painter’s book, which mocks the notion of cultural syncretism and the melting pot in favor of a salad bowl or multiplicity of American identities, defined in terms that rooted cosmopolitans would recognize: see https://clarespark.com/2010/07/20/german-romantic-predecessors-to-multiculturalism/, and https://clarespark.com/2010/10/18/the-dialectic-of-multiculturalism-helvetius-herder-fichte/).

Briefly, Painter reiterates the left-progressive (but not Marxist*) story of American identity, one defined in racial terms: American identity, the echt example of Manifest Destiny masquerading as universal messianic liberator, was in fact racist, imperialist, classist, sexist, etc. Howard Zinn could have written this book, and did. American identity is nowhere related to the revolutionary character of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, or to the uniqueness of the conception of popular sovereignty—a notion of popular participation that would require several centuries and bitterly fought conflicts to be worked out, and even then, thanks to the unhelpful interventions of many progressives like Painter and Gordon, was undermined by boundaries to education established by corporatist liberal elites and their allies and pets, the teachers unions. For a chronology see https://clarespark.com/2011/10/24/turning-points-in-the-ascentdecline-of-the-west/.

The corporatist liberals are a movement of patricians who attached themselves to “intercultural understanding” as a solution to looming class politics from 1900 on, and who were especially threatened in the 1930s, when materialist analyses were prominent and popular. (See my blog https://clarespark.com/2009/10/10/ralph-bunche-and-the-jewish-problem/. Ralph Bunche and other anti-racist blacks—especially Abram L. Harris–writing in the materialist tradition and in opposition to German Idealism, are absent from her book, along with such as white antiracists Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens and many abolitionists, also Anglophiles in the sense that they celebrated libertarian ideals.)

In Painter’s account, New England Puritans were the bad guys whose ancestors framed the Magna Charta (dissed by Painter), and whose descendants were (with the exception of Ruth Benedict) nativists associated with the Republican Party. All other Americans (obviously blacks, but also non-Aryans) were  their victims.  But recent trends in intermarriage have blurred the sharp racial lines that were established by “scientific racism.” The latter is an ideology forged in Germany and England, and then eagerly taken up by American Republicans like Theodore Roosevelt and those she associates with him, Lothrop Stoddard and Madison Grant  [although Zangwill dedicated his The Melting Pot to TR]. Into the brew add a host of American eugenicists and evil statisticians, who not only persecuted Appalachian whites and ethnic groups from Eastern and Southeastern Europe, arbitrarily designating themselves (the WASPS) as the natural elite and true white people, but originated, avant la lettre, some of the most repellent Nazi practices and beliefs.

Along the way, Professor Painter, like other social democrats, presents herself as a sympathizer to the working class and to anarchists and communists absurdly hounded by the proto-Nazi Republicans in the riotous and strike-ridden year of 1919. (Readers of Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism will find some of the same miscreants, e.g., Margaret Sanger, only in his widely admired book, it is progressives who are the fascists and Nazis.) And yet, Painter does not recognize or acknowledge the German Romantic predecessors to multiculturalism and Nazism alike. Nor does the term “organic conservative” darken her palette. (See these take shape in the interwar period in numerous venues as I laid out in several blogs: https://clarespark.com/2009/09/19/populism-progressivism-and-corporatist-liberalism-in-the-nation-1919/, https://clarespark.com/2010/03/05/organic-conservatives-and-hitler/, https://clarespark.com/2009/11/22/on-literariness-and-the-ethical-state/.  In other words, the progressives and Southern Agrarians were as enamored of “Anglo-Saxon” collectivist/corporatist categories as the uniformly racist Republicans she taunts throughout.

I do not know why Painter wrote this book unless it was meant to lure Reagan Democrats away from the Republican Party, back to the Democratic Party as it has evolved under President Obama. Her work reminds me of a common designation by 1930s Stalinists whereby all Republicans were Fascists, whereas the multicultural Soviet Union was the home to the most amply realized freedom of the individual.

One or two last words: Although Painter is hostile to antisemitism, she is not sympathetic to Israel, or to “Jews” who insist on “having the last word.” I did find her description of Hiram Powers’s “The White Slave” to be a useful key to identifying the erotic appeal of Katherine McPhee’s big number in the last episode of Smash. Dressed in white drapery, country mouse McPhee as Marilyn Monroe, is hounded to death and caged by her [Jewish?] masked promoters/fans, with her allure defined by whiteness and the chains (bars of the cage) that link purity, sex, and submission. But any hip feminist would have seen through that one.

Hiram Powers' White Slave

*Marx admired the American Civil War as one of the great world revolutions. His communist supporters, writing in The New Masses during the 1930s, admired America for having developed the productive forces that would make the transcendence of capitalism a practical possibility. In those days, one could find radicals who admired the bourgeoisie as a progressive class. The New Left, mesmerized by black nationalist militants and Afro-centrists like Nell Painter, scrubbed away that interpretation of U.S. history. I rather  like her paintings however.

"Plantains 3" Nell Painter

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