YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

March 4, 2013

Romney v. the cultural politics of “Mean”

WSJ cover art March 2-3

WSJ cover art March 2-3

Fox News Sunday, March 3, 2013, ran a long interview with Mitt Romney and Ann Romney. I was struck once again by how nice the Romneys were, and how “gentlemanly” were Mitt’s opinions and demeanor.

Everyone has an opinion on why Obama defeated Romney, but no one has commented, to my knowledge, on the cultural politics of “Mean.” For instance, Seth MacFarlane was ostentatiously mean during his Oscars hosting, yet he is being defended by feminists and conservatives for nailing Hollywood actresses for adding to the dread “hyper-sexualization” that those strange bedfellows (feminists and cultural warriors of the Right) laud in the song “Boobs” that outed all those actresses who had bared their breasts for the [white slavers of Jew-controlled Hollywood]. (See Andrew Klavan’s new piece http://pjmedia.com/andrewklavan/2013/03/03/conservatives-are-boobs-when-it-comes-to-pop-culture/. Then compare Klavan’s defense of MacFarlane with my own analysis: https://clarespark.com/2013/02/25/potus-michelle-and-the-end-of-the-democratic-republic/.)

Similarly, conservatives are on board with the obviously misogynistic insult to mothers when they call the paternalistic welfare state “the nanny state”.  Or take the impressively educated actor David Duchovny, interviewed on NPR last week, who explained why he could watch The Godfather over and over, for he was captivated by Marlon Brando’s transition from Mafia don to murderer, which is Duchovny’s idea of fatherhood, a point he made quite clearly.

Or take yet another example from the hip media: the much-admired series The Good Wife seems to celebrating opportunism over the moral quandaries it had previously explored in a successful Chicago law firm. “Alicia” (played by Julianna Margulies) has made the transition from self-torturing moralist to opportunist, and is demonstrably mean to the (exploited) associates in her new role as “equity partner.” Will the writers take her down in future episodes? I doubt it, because I suspect that “mean” is the new “cool,” and the chic Margulies, dressed to the nines with very high heels, is the role model du jour. Nice guys and gals finish last, and Alicia will go with the winner.

Freud and his ever dwindling followers warned about the brutalization of culture during and after the Great War. Even that outpost of balance and moderation the Wall Street Journal ran a story about female executives persecuting their female underlings, illustrating their piece with a gigantic spike heeled black shoe, the very symbol of sadism and masochism. See the first page of Section C, March 2-3, 2013: “The Tyranny of the Queen Bee: Women who reached positions of power were supposed to be mentors to those who followed—but something is amiss in the professional sisterhood.”


“Mean Streets,” the continued coolness of that train wreck Lindsay Lohan, the viewer interest in The Following, all point to a culture where cruelty is celebrated, and niceness is wimpy and old hat, something our grandparents wear, like sensible shoes. (Note that the dimunitive female mentee above is wearing flat shoes.)

Louboutin "Fetish Ballerine"

Louboutin “Fetish Ballerine”

Underneath all this sadism is the lesson the professoriate failed to spot in analyzing classic American literature. For instance, Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Man of the Crowd” gives the game away. This symbol of the urban mob is revealed as Pierrot, as the Wandering Jew, as the murderer Cain with hairy hands. As the story line of The Following plays out, expect to see the charismatic serial killer (James Purefoy) and his hunter (Kevin Bacon) meld into one fearsome intertwined specter. Both will be heartless and mean, the very embodiment of the barbarism that Freud detected in 1915, for we are not civilized yet.

The too civilized, too nice Mitt Romney, looking at his wife with adoring eyes, never had a chance.



June 3, 2012

Connecting vs. connecting the dots

George Wallace, ca. 1960s

In this campaign year, pundits are constantly complaining that Romney is not “connecting” with the electorate, because he is wealthy (but lacks “the King’s touch”?). The same accusation was directed at him by his populist competitor Rick Santorum, who did “connect” with Pennsylvania coal miners, because, he stated, it was in his blood. (See https://clarespark.com/2012/04/02/touch-me-touch-me-not/.) This emphasis on a vaguely stated  blood and soil “connection” should scare us, for it evades the question of policy, and which candidate offers better economic and diplomatic policy recommendations to maintain American institutions and national security. In the blog that follows, I will try to show how two major books, in their zeal to keep America steady,  fail to inform us of lingering irrationalism in American political culture, an irrationalism that is characteristic of the middle, not the “extremes.” These books are

Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes, The American Communist Movement: Storming Heaven Itself  (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992), and Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab: The Politics of Unreason: Right-Wing Extremism in America, 1790-1970 (N.Y.: Harper and Row, 1970).

Here are two meticulously documented books written for the general reader. The first, by Klehr and Haynes,  concludes that although the communist movement was messianic and directed from Moscow, it was never a substantial threat to the American consensus; indeed, Communism did itself in through such errors as the blunder in running Henry Wallace for president in the Progressive Party campaign of 1948, preceded of course, by the zig-zagging moves of the late 1920s-early1930s, as it veered against the New Deal (seen as “social fascism”), followed by the Popular Front of 1935 onward, then the shock of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939 (that killed the Popular Front), then after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, shifting back to Popular Front politics, only to be sunk once again by the revelations of Khrushchev in 1956. Klehr and Haynes see the years from 1960-1990 as “twilight years.”

I remember reading Ellen Schrecker’s book, No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities (Oxford UP, 1986), when I first started my dissertation research.  She claimed that communism had always been relatively weak, and that the crusade mounted against it by the Right and by Trotskyists, had over-reacted to the detriment of our political culture. When I finished the Klehr-Haynes survey of (now defunct) communism in America, I had the sinking feeling that their book was not incompatible with Schrecker’s argument; that two scholars I greatly admired had not deviated from the “moderate” line of liberal anticommunism, which, while stigmatizing Marxist-Leninism as a religion, did not demand that it, along with its statism/bureaucratic collectivism, be banished from the democratic pluralist spectrum of competing interest groups; nor were they alarmed by the arrival of New Leftism and black nationalism from the 1960s onward. Such a drastic erasure would have linked the authors to the dread anti-intellectual, paranoid extremism of the far right, i.e. to the subject of Lipset and Raab’s survey of irrationalist social movements in the U.S.

In my own experience, both as programmer and for 18 months as Program Director at a Pacifica  radio station (KPFK-Los Angeles), then in graduate school at UCLA in the Department of History, I felt the sting of Communist ideology and organizing: Stalinists were entirely entrenched at Pacifica, and CPUSA organizing got me fired when I put a few Trotskyists on the air, programmers who were complaining about the Spanish Civil War and other insults to the amour propre of such as William Mandel, who used to read from Pravda as a legitimate source of news. Trotskyist intellectuals called their “progressive” competition Stalinoids, and that is an accurate term, though the CPUSA, directly and indirectly, continues to influence mass media, alternative media, and the humanities departments of the major universities, not with a nod to Stalin, but rather to Third Worldism and what they insist is the lamentable history of crooked capitalism in America. In other words, Klehr and Haynes did not consider the penetration of communist ideas into the progressive mainstream, though they point out several times communist initiatives that were taken up by the Roosevelt administration, also the general communist/populist hostility to “finance capital.” While at UCLA, there was no animus directed against Stalinism; rather I met many famous Communist academics, and those (Leninists) on the faculty supported separatist ethnic and women’s studies, just as 1930s Communists supported a Black Belt in the American South to compensate the descendants of slaves; i.e., the racialism of the multicultural discourse did not discourage Communists in the UCLA Department of History, and the most anti-imperialist students were rewarded with fellowships and jobs.

Moving on to Lipset and Raab. These authors come out of the Harvard school of sociology and social relations as it developed from about 1939 onward, linked most famously to the cultural anthropology  (or “structural functionalism”) of Talcott Parsons and the political science “typology” of Max Weber, along with the diagnosis of urban anomie postulated by Durkheim.  Here are the liberal anticommunists who contrast “democratic pluralism” with the “patterns of prejudice” they see as a continuing theme in U.S. political culture, all too given to hysteria. They too are progressive pundits, though, unlike journalists, as academics they were at the top of their profession and remain hegemonic. Among their targets such easy prey as the anti-Masons, the Know-Nothings, Joseph McCarthy, the John Birch Society, and George Wallace. They are big on how conservative elites ensnare unwary little people suffering from status deprivation. (And it was the “moderate” line after WW2, that the Nazis won by capturing the lower middle class, atomized by “mass society.” Democratic pluralism is their antidote to “mass culture.)

It was in their big book from 1970 that I saw multiculturalism/groupiness in action, with the notion of multiple group affiliations as the heartfelt solution to excessive cerebration by such “economic determinists” as Ralph Bunche in his late 1930s memoranda to Gunnar Myrdal (see https://clarespark.com/2009/10/10/ralph-bunche-and-the-jewish-problem/).  Lipset and Raab’s most important revision of class analysis was to redefine class altogether. Whereas Marxists defined class as a specific relationship to the means of production, analyzing power as distributed in given institutions, these Parsonians define class as a ladder, as “status” (i.e. “caste”) encompassing life style and income. What such a definition does is remove the question of contracts and their potential asymmetry from consciousness. All of mass media buy into this Lipset and Raab managerial definition. This erasure of classes as standing in a particular relation to each other, instead of “life style choices” demonstrates to me that such intellectuals have taken on the task of managing conflict by defining everyone who sees structural problems in our society as extremists. They cut out the anti-statist libertarian right who see free markets as wealth creators and the road to opportunity, and they cut out what is now called “the hard left” who make their case on the premise that capital/capitalism exploits not “labor” but a vaguely defined “middle class.”

Prometheus, Heinrich Fueger, 1817

Say what you will about the failures of the Soviet Union. At least its better advocates saw the communist experiment as the culmination of the Enlightenment and the realization of individuality. The best that the moderate men came up with has been “the inherent tension between social egalitarianism—the democratic impulse—and political liberty—democratic restraint.” (Lipset and Raab, p.514) By restraint, the authors mean the stamping out of excessive moralism and resentment, a moralism exemplified by the awful romantic New England Puritan. Moderates like us do not storm heaven, do not copy Prometheus, are generous of spirit; indeed our groupiness is spirituality personified. Orwell anyone? (For a related blog see https://clarespark.com/2010/09/11/is-wall-street-slaughtering-the-middle-class/.)

April 2, 2012

Touch me, touch me not

Rick Santorum has been accusing his Republican rival Mitt Romney of being “out of touch” with the folks, unlike Santorum, whose class origins are claimed to connect with the working class, though Santorum has been either an attorney or a politician all his life; moreover his parents were middle class (a clinical psychologist and a nurse; the only claim he has to throbbing in time with coal miners is a brief residence in West Virginia and in Butler County, Pennsylvania, plus a blood connection to his grandfather; i.e., this is blood and soil talk)*.

Count on the Obama re-election campaign to reiterate Santorum’s constant critique of the ostensibly patrician Mitt, contrasting their humble populist candidate with the silver-spoon Romney. The latter’s class origins will make him an enemy to the People. (Indeed, Romney père’s name was dropped on last night’s episode of Mad Men.)

This blog is about the propaganda value of the phrase “out of touch.” Its opposite, being “in touch” is a feel good phrase that rhymes with “connecting” with the [irrational] electorate, a quality that Romney’s enemies will claim he also lacks.

Apart from the focus on the class background of the candidate (a consideration that is irrelevant to the policies proposed by either the Democratic or Republican platforms in 2012), the notion that there is an animal known as “the people” that longs to be petted by its owner is worth considering, especially as the tactic reminds us of the most shameless demagogues in history.

With whom or with what is our next President to be “in touch”? Do we have a Volk, a people’s community in the US? Should El Jefe strive for the appeal of our loving, touching mothers and other objects of desire? Shall we wilt without the ministrations of a parental surrogate, perhaps one who strokes our prejudices, no matter how distorted? For more of this, see https://clarespark.com/2013/10/31/gossip-and-the-gullible/, especially “Connecting vs. connecting the dots.”

Dunne in fur

“When you shall see flowers that lie on the plain,
Lying there sighing for one touch of rain;
Then you may borrow,
Some glimpse of my sorrow,
And you’ll understand
How I long for the touch of your hand.”

[Lyrics, Otto Harbach, Music, Jerome Kern (Roberta, 1933). See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roberta. Irene Dunne starred in the movie version, 1935]

*[From ABC News, 2-17-12:] “…Both Santorum and Ann Romney began their speeches at the Oakland Park Lincoln Day Dinner here talking about how the hard work of their grandfathers has shaped their lives.

“I talked about my grandfather a lot because he came here to this country and I talk about he worked in the coalmines until he was 72 years old and sort of coal mined his way to freedom,” Santorum said of his grandfather, Pietro Santorum, who came here from Italy during Mussolini’s rise. “But what I didn’t mention, what I failed to mention was when my grandfather first came he actually came to Detroit and worked in the auto factories for two years.”

Santorum then said his grandfather lost his job, returned to Italy and then came back to southwest Pennsylvania to work in the mines.

“And it’s those roots, those roots growing up the grandson of a coalminer, growing up in a steel town in Butler, Pennsylvania, that have forged me as someone who understands the greatness of our country and the importance of the industrial heartland of America,” Santorum said.

Although this was a Party event, Santorum is pushing a working class message he’s hoping will connect with struggling Michiganders — a state with one of the highest unemployment rates in the country– and has been hit hard by the economic downturn.” [end newspaper excerpt. For a related blog on manipulating an audience see https://clarespark.com/2010/11/18/harvards-alpha-dogs/.)

January 12, 2012

The Counter-culture vs. “the Establishment”

“America The Nation of Trampled Rights”

[Illustrated: Soviet poster. Tom Nichols translated it for me: “…an anti-imperialist passage written by Mark Twain in 1901 criticizing the Spanish-American war, but the Soviets mangled it slightly. The original goes like this: ‘And as for a flag for the Philippine Province, it is easily managed. We can have a special one–our States do it: we can have just our usual flag, with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and cross-bones.’ The Soviet poster says: “We can set up a special flag, just the same flag with the white stripes black and the stars replaced by the skull and crossbones. — Mark Twain’  Then at the bottom: AMERICA – THE NATION OF TRAMPLED RIGHTS….”

We are now in full campaign mode, and the media are belching out polls and opinions 24/7. Our political culture is so messed up with respect to labels that it is necessary from time to time to look at the key words that many Americans take for gospel truth, for a meaningful statement of fact. In this blog, I criticize the notion of a [Northeastern] Republican establishment that is held to be the big money behind the Romney candidacy (but see my critique of the New Dealers who indeed were instrumental in politics and social psychology: https://clarespark.com/2015/03/16/who-were-the-precursors-of-the-new-left-the-wasp-establishment-or-communists/).  For “establishment” read “[one faction] of an elite.” For “counter-culture” read the Ron Paul enthusiasts and overlapping leftovers from the 1960s, or even from the coalition between the CPUSA and America First, 1939-41.

The Antifederalists were populists furiously opposed to the output of the Constitutional Convention (1787), but who plays the populist card these days? I have argued here before that populism may have had a startling recrudescence as a grass roots movement of farmers reacting to the Depression of 1893, angry at banks and railroads and railing against the gold standard; however its demands for more direct democracy were co-opted and advanced by a bipartisan progressive movement (as emphasized by Martin Sklar’s big book on the “socially constructed” transition to progressivism). Thus, it can be said, with accuracy, that there is a progressive movement that spans both major political parties, but is mostly unopposed within the Democratic Party (and that in turn often makes common cause with the Leninist Left), and that finds powerful adherents in the Republican Party, especially those espousing “compassionate conservatism.” It is also true that both political parties are internally incoherent, for they are playing to a highly diverse electorate with the same, often irrational or outdated appeals. I hope that the following key words can clear up a bit of the media-bred confusion.

1. Establishment. If classes were akin to geologic strata or rungs in a ladder, and if we had a stable ruling class with the powers of the medieval Catholic Church or the absolutist monarchies that joined King and Church, there might be some basis for the counter-culture dropping out from, or rejecting “the establishment.” But class is not a ladder or a layer of sedimentary rock; equal opportunity does exist under capitalism, and groups that were once exploited in an earlier America (slaves and many workers, including women) now have organized themselves so that they wield enough political power to make or break a federal or state election, not to speak of the power awarded to them by an ever-alert and porous progressive ruling class, alarmed by rowdy movements from below. Clearly, there are de-centered loci of power (as the postmodernists claim), and there is more fluidity and opportunity to rise than the class-warfare ideologues claim. In the case of the Ron Paul adherents, there exist such hated entities as “the military-industrial complex” or “the Fed” (aka the money power). Just to emit these key words, so resonant with authoritarian parenting styles, is enough to stir up a mob.

2. Experts. The stubborn  hatred directed against Walter Lippmann by followers of Noam Chomsky is impressive in its magnitude. Apply to antagonism to Mitt  Romney as “technocrat”. See https://clarespark.com/2009/08/19/noam-chomskys-misrepresentation-of-walter-lippmanns-chief-ideas-on-manufacturing-consent/.

3. American exceptionalism. Anti-Americans, whether Soviet or Nazi/Fascist, have wreaked havoc on the writing of history. Partly because of the way that the corporatist liberals (i.e. the pseudo-moderate men of either Party, see https://clarespark.com/2011/12/02/the-whiteness-of-the-whale/, etc.) absorbed movements from below during the 1960s and 70s, catering to cultural nationalists (subtly racist)  of all kinds, and because there was much ammunition available in the American past, owing to our particular history, the most self-critical,  open and pluralistic society on earth has a terrible international reputation, just as does democratic Israel with its authoritarian neighbors. With a very few exceptions, our most prominent intellectuals and opinion-makers see us as no more than rapacious white people/Jews plundering the other “races” and Mother Nature herself. Who wouldn’t want to drop out and turn on Nirvana in such a hellhole? Hence, the demand for cheap narcotics and other forms of escape, strongly reinforced in the popular culture. (I developed this paragraph further here: https://clarespark.com/2013/02/27/american-exceptionalism-retold/.)

4. The moderate men. There is pseudo-moderation and true moderation. But the word itself is a staple of psychological warfare. No better way to affect public opinion than to name your opponent as “extremist” while claiming the rational position for oneself. And rationality has come to mean the willingness to find the middle ground so that compromises can be effected and wars averted. Pseudo-moderates are often found in those statists who see regulatory agencies and the bureaucracy in general as floating above the fray, able through artfulness to bring extremist antagonists to the bargaining table, where the mediator will accomplish his [magic tricks]. Since everyone wants to be reasonable (i.e., not crazy), we often let this buzz-word go by without critical reflection, without asking for a detailed analysis of the policy that is under review by its citizens or their representatives. A mob is never moderate; a citizen is always thoughtful, self-examining, and prefers the marketplace of ideas as the best place to separate reconcilable from irreconcilable conflicts, taking action accordingly without fear of “flip-flopping.”

5. Flip-flopping.  Any person who has never changed her or his mind is a slave to institutional authority. I have flipped-flopped numerous time, from housewife to radio personality (and with much internal role conflict); from liberal to leftist; from leftist to independent or classical liberal or just plain seeker after truth as a scholar. If a politician is merely an opportunist who changes his/her line depending on the audience, rather than speaking from soundly analyzed and specified policy preferences, then I understand the animus against flip-flopping. But someone who cries “liberty” without spelling out what that means in the most detailed and concrete manner, to be judged by American citizens accordingly, is a charlatan. But then, is our most visible culture not given to the most abstract buzz words and expressions?

From “establishment” to “counter-culture” we are not only speaking past each other, we are not speaking at all.

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