The Clare Spark Blog

October 1, 2014

Is Madam Secretary a glorification of Hillary?

Hillary Clinton Discusses Her New Book In Washington, DC

[Updates, March16, 2015. 10-20-14: After last night’s episode, I do tend to agree more with conservative readings that the series is preparation for a Hillary Clinton run for president. For it contrasted leading from behind (diplomacy) with “force” as exemplified with the negotiator who was fired, and who was connected to the prior Secretary of State (?) who was mysteriously murdered. Nonetheless, the lead character is more intelligent than Hillary, has had more experience in government (she was in the CIA) and is more of a family person. In March, a three week “event” ends in the US signing a peace agreement with Iran, for which the Secretary of State risks her life going to Iran to head off a coup.]

I have now seen the first two episodes of Madam Secretary, which many conservatives see as a successor to The West Wing and a blatant promotion of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. I think that this is too simple an interpretation, though there is no doubt that conservatives are correct to be wary, for many liberals are immune to criticism of their would-be president.

I prefer to see this series as what Marcel Duchamp would have called a “rectified readymade.” There is the very visible real Mrs. Clinton, adored by some feminists and loathed by many conservatives. What both liberal series did or are doing is correcting the errors of prior liberals, cleaning them up and imagining role models who conform to the most idealized self-images possible for social democratic feminists, “balancing” career and family, protective of ordinary people, dripping with compassion for suffering humanity, sensitive to “diversity” and deeply internationalist, and resistant to temptation for cheap glamor.

There is a market now for “strong” female characters who can do male jobs better, with more integrity than their male predecessors. So the fictional Madam Secretary, unlike the real Hillary, defies her male bosses, and does Benghazi/Yemen the way many liberals would have preferred, with smarts, honor and effectiveness.

madamsecretary

In researching this subject, I noticed that The Good Wife was mentioned as a precursor in several trade publications. I think this is an incorrect analogy; it is true that “Alicia Florrick” is a brilliant lawyer, but she is amoral; the fact that her firm (past and present) has represented Chicago’s leading drug dealer is just now emerging as a conflict and primary focus for season five.   Indeed, the series has emphasized Alicia’s opportunism, sexiness, stylish clothing, and quick-wittedness to the detriment of her moral purity. Perhaps the writers wanted to have it both ways: exposing the phony neutrality of lawyers, while promoting “strong women” like “Alicia” and “Diane” who face down men.

tea-leoni-madam-secretary-zeljko-ivanek-CBS

Not so with the rectified Hillary, who is almost Victorian in her perfection as the Mother Of Us All. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mother_of_Us_All.)

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April 29, 2012

Fred Siegel’s melodrama of 20th C. cultural history

Fred Siegel of Manhattan Institute

The April 2012 issue of Commentary features an article by Fred Siegel, http://www.commentarymagazine.com/article/how-highbrows-killed-culture/#.T5mYHo0AEuZ.facebook. (See his mini-bio here: http://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/siegel.htm). The essay is illustrated with a picture of Sir Lawrence Olivier as the diabolical King Richard III.* Originally a lecture delivered to the American Enterprise Institute, the essay has been featured on Facebook, and is highly recommended by John Podhoretz and Richard Miniter.

The chief villains in Siegel’s piece are a motley crew of intellectuals who ostensibly spurned “mass culture” and “mass man”: Nietzsche, the Frankfurt School critical theorists (he mentions Adorno, Horkheimer, and Marcuse), Ortega y Gasset, Dwight MacDonald, Aldous Huxley, H. L. Mencken, the disillusioned authors of the 1920s (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Waldo Frank, Sherwood Anderson). Siegel’s positive models are few, but include Robert M. Hutchins, T.S. Eliot, and apparently himself, as one who would rescue “middlebrow” taste and  “American” culture from its hatchet men. Presumably this rectified “mass culture” is the best defense against leftist and liberal statism and elitism. (Using the word “rectified” was a Marcel Duchamp joke, readers.)

Siegel, seizing the populist moment, perhaps, wants to rehabilitate the middle class and its cultural preferences away from European-friendly snobs, Western Marxists (i.e., the Frankfurters), Trotskyists, and New Leftists too. How he manages to upgrade organic conservatives such as Hutchins and Eliot to his camp is a mystery, for Hutchins was a leader in the semi-public move toward elite rule, relying for instance on Plato, no friend to the masses. (See https://clarespark.com/2010/06/19/committee-for-economic-development-and-its-sociologists/, https://clarespark.com/2010/06/15/the-classics-as-antidote-to-science-education/ .  Hutchins and his cohort of “moderate men” were frank and public manipulators of the masses Siegel says he wants to protect, while Eliot abhorred “free thinking Jews” (1933) as well as the decadence they brought to the modern world, e.g. “damp souls of housemaids” in his “Morning at the Window” (1920).

I have been thinking how to transmit my horror upon reading this type of “cultural” history. There have been other such essays and books purporting to give the reader a cultural or intellectual history of the 20th century, similarly detached from politics, economics, social movements, divergent ideological/class tendencies, and the ongoing controversies over the causes of wars and mass death. For these “culturalist” authors, “ideas” or “philosophy” are the very engines of history, and anyone who protests such a narrow view is ipso facto a “historical materialist,” i.e., a communist or fellow traveler: I am not one of this dragon crew.

There is simply no way to describe “culture” in a vacuum. It is the same problem that I have found in other culture war manifestoes. The organic conservatives (like the apparently “moderate” Siegel) ignore all of history since the invention of the printing press. (For a summary of elite moves against autodidacts see https://clarespark.com/2011/03/11/review-excerpts-re-hunting-captain-ahab/, especially the “letter to the editor” that explains why non-literary critics should read my book.) Without examining constant offensives against the newly literate and numerate, there can be no “cultural history.” That would entail, pace Siegel, a grander sweep than he has attempted. Since the Reformation, elites threatened with displacement have drenched ordinary people with counter-revolutionary, irrationalist propaganda, whether this takes place in the realm of language, or ongoing debates about human nature, or the Promethean impulse (always a bad thing for fact-hoarding elites), or what is or is not fascism.

To summarize, readers and other consumers of “culture” want to know (or should want to know) what they are experiencing. They (should) want to know who made this or that artifact (including her or his biography), who paid for it, what it is saying about past and present conflict (for instance, the range of permissible emotions, disobedience to authority or the role of Church and State in everyday life). Whereas organic conservatives are interested in none of the above. They value social cohesion/stability over the search for truth, and trot out their celebrities or institutions du jour to guide the autodidact away from the abyss they most fear:  rupture with the past—a past that is irrationalist to its very core, that makes objective reality a phantasm pursued only by monomaniacs.

Fred Siegel wants to be a friend to mass man, and to the middle class consumer of masscult. Yet he does not respect the very tools that ordinary people have developed, against the wishes of their betters, critical tools such as science and empiricism that point the way to understanding past and present.

*Siegel actually praises the large audience for the television presentation of Richard III, as part of his defense of 1950s popular culture, but the deployment of Richard III’s face by Commentary suggests a group assassination to me. And where oh where is John Milton and Paradise Lost? It was once the case that Shakespeare and Milton were paired as the leading voices in English poetry, but Milton, the puritan whose “Satan” “traced the ways of highest agents,”  and, with Eve, purveyor of the Fortunate Fall, is nowhere to be found in the new dispensation.

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