YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

August 14, 2014

Understanding Obama’s ongoing appeal

Ridha Ridha "Normal Ambivalence"

Ridha Ridha “Normal Ambivalence”

Many dark thoughts cross my mind as I contemplate the list of failures attributable to POTUS, but ranking the reason for his continued popularity in some quarters goes beyond his obvious appeal to recipients of state largesse, proud or despised minorities, and guilty liberals.

Why has no one mentioned his stirring speeches promising national unity that helped elect him in the first place? For his healing messages imply that not only warring sections of our country shall be reunited, but that the disunity that we feel inside ourselves, and inside our supposedly harmonious “families” shall also be resolved.

And yet ambivalence is part of the human condition, as Freud controversially alleged in his formulation of the inescapable Oedipus Complex. One old standard partly and incompletely expresses these mixed feelings that occasionally surface, but are usually quickly repressed. (Here is Nat King Cole singing the Vincent Youmans tune “Sometimes I’m Happy” 1957: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CtPeknt0mBA.)

Psychiatrists Melanie Klein, Heinz Kohut and Otto Kernberg, in their studies of “object relations” and “narcissism” all explored the common practice of “splitting” in which we escape ambiguity and ambivalence by turning those figures (public or private) who arouse deep emotions into all good or all bad figures. I find myself doing this myself, and it is only in retrospect that I correct these black and white divisions. For like most other people, I am capable of either demonizing or hero-worshipping figures who are themselves sometimes benign, sometimes threatening, but always struggling to stay afloat.

Perhaps it is the greatest challenge we face as historians, as journalists, or as citizen-critics of our leaders to understand that each of us lives within a controlling, often menacing, context that we did not choose; moreover that we struggle to rationalize our own self-interest and to conform to the imprecations of our parents and siblings to be like them, to maintain idealized attachments, and indeed to like them without ambivalence.

We would rather escape into desolation or into the illusion of unity than face “things as they are” (Melville, speaking through the dubious (?) narrator of Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852), or try his The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857)—if you can take the challenge to your amour propre.)

Ryoshimizu, "Ambivalence"

Ryoshimizu, “Ambivalence”

Here is a related blog: https://clarespark.com/2013/09/17/the-illusion-of-national-unity/, with a disquieting painting by Max Beckmann expressing alienation and lack of connection with others or “things as they are.”

Beckmann, Paris Gesellschaft 1931

Beckmann, Paris Gesellschaft 1931


September 17, 2013

The Illusion of National Unity

Max Beckmann paints Paris 1931

Max Beckmann paints Paris 1931

In this brief blog I will address those still potent divisions that the “turn to culturalism” has masked. I will, as usual, reject the inheritance of the “organic nation,” or the misnamed cultural pluralism that goes by the name of “multiculturalism,” as well as such terms as “national identity,” “group identity” or “zeitgeist.” All these terms are the effluents of German Romanticism, or the “Aufklärung” as it is misleading named. The German” Enlightenment” is a misnomer for it asserted itself against the all-too “bourgeois” “mechanical materialism” of the French and English Enlightenments.

No one with even a passing knowledge of US history can imagine that we are a unified entity unless they are chauvinists who revel in the notion of American superpower status, as opposed to celebrating the good sense embodied in the American Constitution, with its checks and balances, separation of powers, and frankly materialistic approach to conflict (see the Federalist Papers that made almost no mention of “God.”) Nor did the framers of that Constitution have any illusions about human nature. Federalist #10 made the conflict between creditors and debtors clear enough, and the Left loves to cite Madison’s contribution as proof that capitalism is elitist and opposed to the interests of the common man; that the Constitution is an elitist document). What are the real divisions that complicate the controversies swirling around us and that are masked by “culturalism” and its rhetoric?

Besides the ongoing structural conflict between creditors and debtors that often takes the form of populism, already mentioned, First, there is not a [jewified] communist party versus a capitalist party, as some on the Far Right would have it. Two capitalist parties confront one another, with differing strategies for wealth creation: one generally looks to state-imposed Keynesian demand-stimulus economic remedies for economic downturns, while those Republicans who are not overly indebted to “progressives” look to free markets and supply-side economics. (For living economists exemplifying the latter, see Larry Lindsey’s latest book, or the op-ed in the Wall Street Journal 9-17-13 by Martin Feldstein.) The fact that Keynesians may be found in both parties owing to the bipartisan origins of progressivism, complicates the picture.

Second, there is a strong argument for the South having won the peace through the popularity of the paternalistic organic society that Southerners asserted as superior to the “wage-slavery” of the urbanized, capitalist, puritan North.

Gemeinschaft beat out Gesellschaft during successive phases of the progressive movement, culminating in the New Deal, hence the collectivist vocabulary that may be found in advertising and political speeches. Ayn Rand railed against this, to little avail. She was preceded in the 19th century by the antislavery Senator from Massachusetts, the descendant of Puritans: Charles Sumner.

Thus we have an ongoing conflict between the country and the city, with many protest movements flavored by agrarianism and nostalgia for the allegedly neighborly and unified small town (compare to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, 1919). Sumner took liberal nationalism to mean a government that protected the rights of individuals as opposed to collective entities. For this (along with Sumner’s proposals for “Radical Reconstruction”) Sumner has been read out of the canon of great Americans until very recently.

Third, anyone who thinks that the Reformation was settled long ago, and that there is no deeply rooted religious conflict today is uneducated about the history of immigration and of religiously defined conflict in general. Sectarian divisions within and between the major religions impinge on all the other conflicts. I could go on, but won’t, for too long a blog would emerge. I will mention, however, the omnipresent sentimentality of our popular culture, whether this is reflected in the worship of “romantic love,” “the happy family,” “the community,” adorable babies, or pets–all attempts to find internal unity in divided selves. Community-and-Society It is difficult to navigate oneself politically through all these intertwined conflicts. But it would be true progress to admit that they exist. On Toennies see https://clarespark.com/2011/12/15/gingrich-and-the-socially-constructed-nation-state/.

June 15, 2010

The Classics as antidote to science education?

Max Beckmann, Odysseus and Calypso, 1943

   In the late 1930s, two books were published that traced the trajectory of European civilization, and found that The Greek Way (as classicist Edith Hamilton titled her book of 1930*) was clearly protofascist. One was by social psychologist Ellis Freeman: Conquering the Man in the Street: A psychological analysis of propaganda in war, fascism, and politics  (N.Y.:  Vanguard Press, 1940), the earlier by future Labour M.P. Richard Crossman:  Plato Today (N.Y.: Oxford UP, 1939). Both are available on Amazon.com and I highly recommend them, for social democratic journalists (Stanley Fish and J. M. Bernstein), blogging this week in the New York Times, are calling for renewed attention to a classical education as a remedy to a narrow science/technology education that is allegedly suppressing critical thought.  (In one case, the philosopher  J.M. Bernstein, compares the Tea Party to Jacobin terrorists, rage-driven and standing for a mythical autonomous individual.  But that critic of the organic society, Ellis Freeman,  would have been outraged by such a comparison, for the test of democracy was the structure of groups: would or would not the “leader” accept criticism from individuals in the group? If not, it was fascist or protofascist. Think now of the structure of classrooms in the humanities, dominated as they are now by left-liberals and hardcore Leninists. Or the fear that some Democratic congressmen have of Town Hall meetings.)

In other words, proto-Nazis (the Tea Party) would be cured with a dose of Hegel and other German Idealists who looked to measured, balanced, communitarian ancient Greeks for their models. Having just read the Robert Fitzgerald translation of Homer’s The Odyssey, I find the idea that Homer’s epics are useful to us today as any kind of social or political model quite terrifying, especially with respect to the critical practices that make a democracy viable. But as a source for comic books and blood and gore movies and television, the adventures of Odysseus are a treasure trove. Think of the good king, the paternalistic welfare state, the touching loyalty of its servants, fatalism, magic, the intervention of wise god figures in daily life (grey-eyed Athena or a wise Latina), superheroes, shape-changing creatures, gorgeous tall women and men, the glitter of gold and silver along with artisanal triumphs designed for the aristocracy, the increasing blending of gymnastics with dance, but most of all, the aestheticization of violence that Walter Benjamin described as the culture of fascism and Nazism in his famous defense of modern mass media “The Work of Art in the Era of Mechanical Reproduction.”  Writing at the same time as Freeman and Crossman, Benjamin declared that such artists as Marinetti had glorified war to the point where humanity was contemplating its own destruction as an aesthetic experience. What would Benjamin have said about the humanizing beauty of Odysseus’s slaughter of the suitors and the female slaves who had slept with them?– A slaughter that left the poet in awe of the “lion” figure of Odysseus, covered as he was with the blood and gore of his enemies.

As the late mathematician and author Norman J. Levitt understood very well, the scientific revolution created a rupture in the trajectory of the West that had the potential to change the course of Western civilization.**  It is through science-induced skepticism that we learn to stand alone, if necessary, in confrontation with the mind-management of the past, or with power-hungry and corrupt leaders of the present. It is through the ingenuity of individual, Promethean free-thinking humans that we will conquer hostile nature without destroying life on the planet. As for the Greek way (explicitly Keynesian in the view of Robert M. Hutchins), look to its legacy in the streets of Athens.

*I did not mean to imply that either Freeman or Crossman criticized Hamilton, nor do I forget that Plato banished poets from his Republic. I have now read her book, and it fits in with the ongoing portrait I have painted of the Progressives: their claim to balance the claims of individuality and community through their embrace of “the Third Way,” the aspiration to aristocracy, the glorification of heroes, their organicism. But she adds a grim touch in her adulation of tragic heroes, whose fates bring us intense pleasure, not pain. S-M anyone? (For a related blog, see https://clarespark.com/2015/05/30/constructing-the-moderate-men-with-the-classics/.)

**My friend Norman Levitt was a democratic socialist, and might have been transposing his desire for a rupture between capitalism and what he thought would be a better society back into the seventeenth century.

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