YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

June 14, 2013

“Father, dear father, come home with me now”

TennightsinbarroomThere will be many tributes to fathers in the next few days. This one will deal 1. with my own father, and 2. with the efforts by social psychologists of the 1940s to rehabilitate the image of the Good Father in order to advance their moderate conservative agendas.

First, my own father, Charles Spark, M.D. My father the doctor was born in NYC, and was the child of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. During the 1930s he was a research fellow in endocrinology at Montefiore Hospital, and before that he had published a pioneering research paper while still in college. Immediately after Hitler was appointed Chancellor, he wrote and directed an antifascist play at his workplace. After Pearl Harbor, he volunteered to join the medical corps even though he was over-age (he may have been drafted, and lied to me). Henceforth, we followed him around the country as he ran pathology laboratories at army bases in Texas, Missouri, and California. His precocity, versatility, and willingness to sacrifice himself for his country was impressed upon me from early childhood. I prayed every night that he would not be killed, even though he never saw combat. That is how children think.

He was shipped off to Guadalcanal where he had a violent allergic reaction to the environment, and was shipped home, claiming later that he almost died. For reasons that escape me, he gave up medical research for general practice and we moved into a veteran’s housing project in Elmhurst, NYC. We had never lived high, so the cramped material surroundings were not deeply shocking. All that mattered was that our family was reunified and my father practiced medicine for enlisted men and their families next door.

So my father assumed the proportions of a family hero. He was not only a high achiever in his field, I was expected to live up to his accomplishments, and later in life when I asked him why he gave up medical research, he wrote to me that I was to be his “greatest contribution to medicine.” What I could not know as a child was that neither he nor my mother had any parenting skills. They were nothing like the elites of Europe, who, early on prepared their offspring to take a leading part in world affairs, to travel broadly, and to imbibe high culture and languages, preferably from tutors.

Call it benign neglect. Both parents assumed that I would be an outstanding student and would find a suitable mate (though he frequently warned me about the duplicity of men, binding me to him in the process: he almost didn’t attend my wedding in 1959). So it was their examples as intelligent individuals with high expectations for me that set me up for the future. I learned nothing from my family about sexuality, the other emotions, and neither of them had an interest in Freud or his followers. But neither indoctrinated me in any religion or ideology, though my mother often mentioned her pride in her rabbinic ancestors (see https://clarespark.com/2013/05/12/i-remember-mama-betty-spark/.) I had the impression that they must be liberals of some kind. Sadly, they are both deceased, and I cannot interrogate them on these interesting questions.

It was not until I was at Pacifica and made the acquaintance of numerous New Leftists that I began to look into masculine versus feminine roles. From political scientist Carl Boggs I learned that paternal authority had been eroded for centuries. From feminists, I learned that there was a furious debate over the status of women: hard left women tended to believe that women had greater status when their labor was visible (e.g. Mary Kelley), while another faction (social democratic, e.g. Kathryn Kish Sklar) argued that domestic feminism leading to the welfare state marked the advance of all women. It was noted that by all that under industrialization, the father was no longer the paterfamilias who distributed resources in the household: father was now out of the house and the role of religious training fell more and more on mothers. (Ann Douglas wrote a best seller, still highly regarded, but controversial: The Feminization of American Culture. Douglas preferred the terrifying Calvinist God, not the feminized Jesus of the 19th century.) Hence the widespread nervousness among conservatives about “the [encroaching] nanny state.” 1970s feminism was the last straw (see https://clarespark.com/2012/09/04/links-to-blogs-on-feminism/) .

During my dissertation research, I discovered that social psychologists at Harvard University were frantically attempting to rehabilitate the good father, merging the figures of Washington, Lincoln, and FDR, in order, they said, to raise “civilian morale.” Feminization, it was believed, would lead to Marxism, not to the conservative reform that such as Henry A. Murray, Gordon Allport, Talcott Parsons, and their Harvard colleagues preferred as moderate men. Indeed, Talcott Parsons published an article in an anthology edited by Isacque Graeber and Steuart Henderson Britt, Jews in a Gentile World (Macmillan, 1942) that limned the bad father: the Jewish God was nailed as brutal, militaristic, and domineering. Whereas Murray and Allport in their notebooks on civilian morale praised the Leader/ Father/God as loving and committed to democracy, the very embodiment of Eros. (On this topic see https://clarespark.com/2011/03/27/progressive-mind-managers-ca-1941-42/, also the postwar planning intended to continue this “moderate” agenda: https://clarespark.com/2010/06/19/committee-for-economic-development-and-its-sociologists/ .)

So on this Father’s Day, 2013, we find ourselves in a quandary. Do we want Father to be the stern disciplinarian, the masculinist role model for boys who will divert libido from too-compassionate, radicalizing mothers to [moderately] Democratic fathers (as these social psychologists suggested)? Can women raise children without a husband? Conservatives and liberals are still slugging it out on this question.

As for my own father the doctor, I remain deeply attached to him, notwithstanding his many flaws. Both he and my late mother believed in me, in some ways stimulated me, and in other ways left me alone. Perhaps by default, they encouraged me to be curious and to admire and emulate the most daring thinkers in Western civilization.

Charles and Betty Spark mid-1930s

Charles and Betty Spark mid-1930s


January 15, 2013

Golden Globes, Lincoln, Clinton, Hobsbawm

Filed under: Uncategorized — clarelspark @ 9:37 pm
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clinton-harlemTwo events stood out for me during the 2013 Golden Globes award show:

  1. First, Jodie Foster, recipient of the Cecil B. DeMille Award, defining her “self,” her “identity,” primarily as both a private person and a lesbian.  It made for surreal television.  If action creates essence, as Sartre argued, then sexual preference is the most significant action in our lives. Such are the fruits of single-issue politics. But Hollywood sells sex and violence, and many men are turned on by lesbian sex, so why should I be shocked?
  2. Second, the surprise visit of Bill Clinton, sometimes known as “America’s First Black President,” ahead of the award that he hoped would go to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Clinton not only stumped for Spielberg’s movie, he lauded the virtues of “compromise” (obviously lecturing Republicans who were and would be the butt of Sarah Palin jokes).   (See http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/moviesnow/la-et-mn-golden-globes-2013-bill-clinton-makes-surprise-stump-speech-lincoln-argo20130113,0,1854944.story.)

I have been rereading the British communist historian Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Revolution 1789-1848, (1962) partly because he makes much of the transition from feudalism to capitalism. His emphasis on social property relations at the expense of individual biography (except in the case of Napoleon, whose ambition and military genius changed Europe forever, bringing it out of stable, rooted, feudal, collectivism into the sad, bad, uprooted world of bourgeois  individualistic profiteering), was exactly how I was taught history in graduate school at UCLA.

Here is one example that illustrates Hobsbawm’s grand method. He is describing the economic relations that determined the American Civil War– no room for “compromise” here (nor for the women and men who comprised the moralistic abolition and antislavery movements, or the drastic political realignment that led to the Republican Party and its first Republican president, elected on a free soil platform):

[Hobsbawm, p.179:] Only one major obstacle stood in the way of the conversion of the USA into the world economic power which it was soon to become: the conflict between an industrial and farming north and a semi-colonial south. For while the North benefited from the capital, labour, and skills of Europe—and notably Britain—as an independent economy, the South, which imported few of these resources) was a typical dependent economy of Britain. Its very success in supplying the booming factories of Lancashire with almost all their cotton perpetuated its dependence, comparable to that which Australia was about to develop on wool, the Argentine on meat. The South was for free trade, which enabled it to sell to Britain and in return to buy cheap British goods; the North, almost from the beginning (1816), protected the home industrialist heavily against any foreigner—i.e. the British—who would then have undersold him. North and South competed for the territories of the West—the one for slave plantations and backward self-sufficient hill squatters, the other for mechanical reapers and mass slaughterhouses; and until the age of the trans-continental railroad the South, which controlled the Mississippi delta through which the Middle West found its chief outlet, held some strong economic cards. Not until the Civil War of 1861-65—which was in effect the unification of America by and under Northern capitalism—was the future of the American economy settled. [end Hobsbawm quote]


Considering his gratuitous snipes at “backward…hill squatters,” “mechanical reapers” and “mass slaughterhouses”,  is there any doubt that Hobsbawm was more emotionally attuned to medieval collectivism and the peasantry, than to a modern world dominated by mass death, greed, and machines, notwithstanding his sometimes defense of the bourgeoisie as producers of the new industrial working class that would climb the mountain to socialism?  Does that same ambivalence characterize the business of Hollywood movies and television?

(Illustrated: a rural version of Jodie Foster, child actor]

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