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.”

queenbee2

“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.

Romneys

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December 9, 2012

Holiday blues, Unhappy families

norman-rockwell-coupleOne of Freud’s primary themes in treatment of his patients was the separation of (idiosyncratic) neurotic anxiety from objective anxiety. Since anxiety disorders (along with depression and post-traumatic stress disorders) are widely present in our culture, I thought that the general subject was worthy of focus and exploration.

Keep in mind that many of Freud’s original writings were published before the events of the 20th century, with horrors such as the Great War leading to innovations in his repertoire, for instance “the death wish” or a general pessimism regarding the human condition (“everyday unhappiness”), not to speak of his attack on all religion as infantile regression in The Future of An Illusion (1928). But the Freudians today are few and cater to an older, usually moneyed urban clientele, while it is the Jungians whose influence has penetrated into popular culture and even school curricula, owing perhaps to Jung’s postulation of a racially-specific unconscious that blends well with racialist theories of multiculturalism. (For my numerous blogs on Jung and Jungians, see https://clarespark.com/2010/05/10/jungians-rising/.)

It is more often the case that Freud’s influence, if any, is filtered through the structural functionalism of Talcott Parsons and similar social theorists who are more interested in adjustment and functionality (stability in interpersonal and international relations), than in the tracking of personal traumas and intertwined social traumas that lead to troubling “symptoms” such as the anxiety disorders. Indeed, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders  has been funded by liberals and their foundations and related organizations, including the MacArthur Foundation, U.S. government agencies, the World Health Organization, and the American Psychiatric Association. Their approach is managerial, as opposed to an orientation to cure, for that could lead to radicalization or other postures deemed destabilizing to social order imagined by the moderate men.

NPR recently interviewed a psychiatrist in the know about changes to DSM-V, the diagnostic manual used by physicians of every kind in labeling and prescribing treatment for their patients. This psychiatrist stated that it was likely that grief (a subject that has not been previously “medicalized” as abnormal) would be limited to two months, after which antidepressants might be indicated. (For a general summary of proposed changes in DSM-V see http://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/controversy-changes-dsm-diagnosis-1205127, posted December 6, 2012.)

Some passages from the Introduction to DSM-IV bear quoting, especially as they are not only as indecipherable as Parson’s own famously awful prose, but are careful to avoid positing dualisms between mind and body, or labeling suffering “individuals”:

“In DSM-IV, each of the mental disorders is conceptualized as a clinically significant behavioral or psychological syndrome or pattern that occurs in an individual and that is associated with present distress (e.g., a painful symptom) or disability (i.e., impairment in one or more important areas of functioning) or with a significantly increased risk of suffering death, pain, disability, or an important loss of freedom. In addition, this syndrome or pattern must not be an expectable and culturally sanctioned response to a particular event, for example, the death of a loved one. Whatever its original cause, it must currently be considered a manifestation of a behavioral, psychological, or biological dysfunction in the individual. Neither deviant behavior (e.g., political, religious, or sexual) nor conflicts that are primarily between the individual and society are mental disorders unless the deviance or conflict is a symptom of dysfunction in the individual as described above.” [I have not yet found a definition of “the individual”; rather, progressives are careful to define the “individual-in-society.”  See https://clarespark.com/2009/12/12/switching-the-enlightenment-corporatist-liberalism-and-the-revision-of-american-history/. CS]

[DSM-IV, cont.:]  “A common misconception is that a classification of mental disorders classifies people, when actually what are being classified are disorders that people have. For this reason, the text of DSM-IV (as did the text of DSM-III-R) avoids the use of such expressions as “a schizophrenic” or “an alcoholic” and instead uses the more accurate, but admittedly more cumbersome, “an individual with Schizophrenia” or “an individual with Alcohol Dependence.” ( my emphasis, pp. xxi-xxii)

This is the language of progressivism, pretending that these experts believe in the discrete, unique individual, while all along using quantification and statistics that attempt to describe disruptive (mal-adjusting) group behaviors: “disorders that people have.” Moreover, their language is so vague and abstract that I for one, can barely decode their language. But I suspect that “defiant” individuals (who have their own section in DSM-IV) are deemed dysfunctional no matter how rationally based their nonconformity may be. (I was considered to be “defiant” or excessively “experimental” in graduate school by leading professors, sometimes in private, sometimes in public. See https://clarespark.com/2012/12/22/my-oppositional-defiant-disorder-and-eric-hobsbawm/.)

The language that I have quoted is so abstracted from the real life experience of classes, genders, or other groupings that one wonders if the suspicions of the anti-psychiatry theorists are not themselves more rational than the mental health practitioners who rely upon DSM’s diagnostic codes to prescribe pills and other remedies for symptoms that are imposed by the concrete life experiences of soldiers, abused and neglected children, or simply members of families that do not meet their individual emotional and biological needs.

But as I read the section in DSM-IV on post-traumatic stress disorders, I was struck by the usefulness of these causal situations to current day problems that are often global in nature: the direct experience of war and falsifying propaganda; the demoralizing teaching of history as non-stop atrocity; the hyper-sexualization of American culture that exposes children to sexual scenes at early ages; the crime shows on television or in the movies that are graphically violent and sexual in nature; the constant broadcasting of apocalyptic scenarios that blame industrialization for the imminent end of life on our planet; “rage against the machine” by rock bands and other counter-culture wannabe stars; gangsta rap; the barrage of images of the happy gift-giving, problem-solving family (especially from Thanksgiving on through Christmas)–families untroubled by generational conflict, misunderstanding, or sibling rivalry.

While I object to the introductory material that I have quoted, the many social-cultural-political sources of PTSD are useful to the understanding of “objective anxiety.”

How neurotic are we, or are most of us rationally reacting to an objectively terrifying world? (For a related blog see https://clarespark.com/2009/11/16/panic-attacks-and-separation-anxiety/. For a description of the controversy surrounding revisions of DSM-IV, see http://www.theatlanticwire.com/national/2012/12/inside-controversy-over-bible-mental-disorder/59849/.)

Why does Norman Rockwell have a German helmet circa WW1 perched on top of his easel?

Norman Rockwell

Norman Rockwell

October 9, 2012

Big Bird, Prostrate

http://tinyurl.com/9roa6er (Read this first)

Henry Geldzahler of the NEA

 Several questions are raised by Governor Romney’s suggestion that he might cut federal funding for PBS, with the example of a prostrate Big Bird subsequently pounced upon by even bigger birds on the Left. This blog considers the vexed question of government funding of the arts and humanities, a subject that interests me, for I have not only been the recipient of small grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, I served on the radio panel of the NEA from 1978-1980, so saw at least one bureaucracy in action.

Here are my major arguments on behalf of cutting subsidies to CPB, PBS, NEA, NEH, Pacifica, and public radio in general:

  1. The history of the arts and humanities in Europe demonstrates that patronage determined the content of “high culture” artworks created by authors, composers, painters, sculptors, and architects. Patronage was supplied by the Church, by aristocrats, and by the new merchant princes in places such as the Netherlands and the city-states of what would become Italy. Iconoclasts such as Spinoza worked at an occupation to support himself, while his writings were often circulated anonymously and in subversive bookshops that also handled pornography.  Censorship in Europe was fierce and effective. The lower orders meanwhile created their own, usually traditional, folk forms, often co-opted by artists seeking reinvigoration for their own productions. That process continues today in popular music and in the fashion industry.

Artists in America, from its founding on, depended upon commercial success, for the U.S. lacked a hereditary aristocracy accustomed to providing sinecures for its pet artists and intellectuals. In spite of initial difficulties over copyright enforcement (Britain frequently pirated books by American authors, to the chagrin of Herman Melville, for example), artists in the New World (especially in theater and in the burgeoning mass culture that was managed by recent immigrants in the 20th century) became successful, mostly through publishing and performance. Such “commercial art” became objects of derision by a vanguard supported by bohemian, wealthy individuals such as Peggy Guggenheim or the modern museums that sprang up after WW1. But American artists were comparatively neglected, as the colorful and highly educated Europeans were favored over the native born. For many decades, American artists and authors expatriated, turning their backs on an American public they saw as philistine and unworthy of their attention.

Enter the Depression and burgeoning Fascism in Europe. Communists and progressives  were interested in celebrating the Common Man, often at the expense of the big capitalists/businessmen who were viewed as their exploiters. There was a major market for such Americana, and WASP elites supported their efforts to show their devotion to ordinary Americans. But the anti-Stalinist Left had its own contingent of writers, authors, and publishers. The arts worlds of the late 1920s, 1930s, and 1950s were roiled with conflict and it is exciting to study their productions, which have not been surpassed in a later period as government stepped in under the administrations of Democrats (see the NEA as founded in 1965, preceded by the WPA in the 1930s), to encourage both established and budding authors, etc.

Big Blue Eagle

Lost in the cultural histories of the twentieth century is the record of social psychologists affiliated with the Roosevelt administration, who viewed the national government as an appropriate locale for a national morale service (see https://clarespark.com/2011/03/27/progressive-mind-managers-ca-1941-42/). Keep this in mind as we move into the cultural work of the 1960s and 1970s New Left and counter-culture, many of whom, it seems, have parented children who want to live the “cool” life of the artist, without the degradation of waiting tables or some other menial job to support themselves. (On the Blue Eagle see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Recovery_Act.)

II. Enter now my own active participation in government granting agencies. This is what I found out as both grant recipient and as participant in the NEA radio panel . First, the grants are so tiny as to fund at most one project, and the amounts awarded are rarely sufficient to support even that one (vetted) endeavor. Second, multiculturalism as a strategy for containing and co-opting the civil rights and feminist movements, determined what organizations and individuals received government sponsorship. Third, the NEA radio panel was rife with corruption and cronyism. Moreover, the staff of the NEA had the power to overrule the panel’s recommendations, so that our contributions could be ignored safely, if the aims of the NEA were in any way thwarted.  In many cases, NPR, I noticed, did not even bother describing the programming content for which they applied; apparently it was taken for granted that they would be subsidized.

It was frequently the practice to award small grants as a lure to attract matching grants from corporations and foundations. Such matching grants were tax-deductible, so it can be argued that the taxpaying public is now the primary patron of the arts, replacing the European elites of old. This diffuse patronage system contained individuals objecting to the [anticapitalist, anti-urban, anti-American, in your face] offerings by government grantees, who were exhibited, performed, and published, then presented to a broad public, some of whom were offended that they were paying for materials that undermined or mocked their religions and values.

On the other hand, some grantees enjoyed such popular success (Sesame Street, Prairie Home Companion) that it was obvious to all that they could survive on the market, without government support. This is the situation in which we find ourselves today. Apart from considerations of the proper role of government in funding the arts (on  Constitutional grounds), there is the disputed question of government direction of creative work, especially given the heterogeneous makeup of the American electorate. The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were remarkably alike in their sponsorship of State-approved icons of heroic workers along with those arts that were comprehensible to “the People.”

Conclusions. An education in the arts and humanities should be made available to every American child. But along with these life-affirming activities should be offered, at appropriate ages, instruction as to the social and political conditions that brought the arts into being: patronage, censorship in the period under discussion (what can and cannot be said at any given period), the message of the artwork (closely observed as to both form and content). I have been harshly critical of populism on this website, but it is in the interest of all the people to understand both the form and content of high culture, mass culture/pop culture, and folk arts. I don’t expect this outcome to be realized in my lifetime. Meanwhile, the government should get out of the business of funding the arts, for such powers will always be politicized on behalf of some faction or another. The European governments that subsidize grand arts projects do so because social democratic governments have taken over the responsibilities of the old aristocracies, and are as hostile to a fully-realized modernity as their forebears. “Excellence” to them, entails rule by a self-perpetuating oligarchy of Platonic guardians. pleased, unlike Plato, to permit a sprinkling of subversion to demonstrate how ‘really’ pluralistic and open these societies are to criticism, innovation and freedom of expression. Marcuse called such strategies “repressive tolerance.”

Banned in Berkeley?

November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving: the power of a national symbol

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Jasper Johns Flag, 1954

The following link will take you to the Museum of Modern Art’s commentary on Jasper Johns’s first flag painting, of which there are many variations. If you watch the video, you will see that they link it to McCarthyism and the Cold War, because of the date, 1954. What they do not tell you is that Johns is from the South, where he also received much of his education. Does formalist criticism alone reveal all the possible resonances of this image?

http://www.moma.org/collection/browse_results.php?object_id=78805.

Turn now to Thanksgiving, the day that celebrates Union, family union and national union alike. Its traditional foods relate strongly to the New England puritan colonists of the 17th century, whose survival was aided by friendly Indians. It was, however, Abraham Lincoln who proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday with a predictable date (but his appeal to the Almighty was in place since Thanksgiving was originally proclaimed in 1789, in gratitude for the Constitution). Here are his very words:

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union. [end, Lincoln’s proclamation, Oct.3, 1863]

   Yesterday, on my Facebook page, I posted an item heard on National Public Radio, in which a female author was interviewed regarding the salutary benefits of telling off annoying relatives at the family dinners, though it punctured the spirit of union. Many comments followed. My own view was that given the difficult travel conditions in reuniting far-flung relatives, the labor gone into the preparation of the feast, the labor of cleaning up afterwards, the gratitude for life and survival during centuries of mass death, gratitude to the bounteous Earth, that it was a time to put personal animosities and resentments aside and to celebrate family unity, i.e., the good of the whole: this was no time for the airing of festering resentments.

Lincoln was a moderate man and a puritan, one who believed in the possibility of religion and symbolic gestures as a road to national healing. Jasper Johns is held to be a neo-Dadaist by the authors of his Wikipedia page. Perhaps on this day, we need more Lincoln and more gratitude to Mother Nature and labor, more moral seriousness (with or without Providence), and less irony and railing.

March 9, 2011

“What is history?”

     That was the name of a book by E. H. Carr, noted historian. Graduate students were supposed to read it in graduate school. However, this blog is about two kinds of “history” writing, incompatible with each other.

It is possible to write history within an entirely religious framework. 1. The deity intervenes in the everyday affairs of humanity, or 2. An undefined entity called “human nature” defies all attempts made by “secularists” to improve the condition of others and oneself, or 3. Civilizations rise and fall, hence there can be no “progress” based upon an improved study of the world around us, followed by measures taken to rectify the errors of the past.

I have encountered many historians writing under these assumptions: the cultural historians I mentioned who dominate the teaching of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction (see my blog https://clarespark.com/2011/02/27/remembering-ralph-bunche-american/, where their names are listed.) In one instance, the leading historian of this group wrote to me that the effects of slavery still lingered, though he did not say what they were, or how such a claim could be proven.

Similarly, today I read an essay by Victor Davis Hanson in National Review Online in which the author contrasted the “therapeutic” view of human nature (he doesn’t like it) with the “tragic view” that he does like, lamenting that it is to be found in literature and not a guide to political choices. It is worth noting that the tragic view has been rightly identified by some as the viewpoint of a declining class that peers into the future and sees nothing but darkness. In Greek tragedy, the hero fell because of hubris or pride. He should have understood that the gods were spinning our fate, and to defy their divine plans was to court the fate of Prometheus.

The other kind of historian is a Promethean, and is denounced as secularist by “traditionalists.” Count me in their city of the damned. These are our crimes against the fates.

1. We pry into the affairs of our betters. We read their private letters, diaries, and journals, along with their public pronouncements. But even their most private utterances are taken with a grain of salt, for they may be leaving a false record for posterity or may simply be fallible as we all are in dealing with touchy issues that are entangled with emotional defenses. It is sometimes said that only the mature historian should attempt biography. Young persons are still wet behind the ears, emotionally speaking. In any case, we footnote our sources so that others may check out our veracity in transmitting the historical record. It is outrageous that most publishers consign these to “endnotes” instead of putting them on the page where they are referenced.

2. We do not assume the role of analyst of today’s conflicts and events, for we have not access to primary source materials, unless they are leaked, and even then we have only hints. Our betters tend to keep the good stuff away from the public eye. That is why James O’Keefe’s sting operation in exposing the views of  NPR executive  Ron Schiller is arousing hysteria in liberal circles.

3. We do not use the past as a foreshadowing or “anticipation” of the future. Unless we are Hegelian Marxists, there is no telos. And even Marx said once that men make history, but not under conditions of their own choosing. Too bad he went into prophet mode in his most influential work. But that is what organic thinkers do. For them, human history is analogous to the life cycle of a plant (e.g. Goethe), but we are not plants. Historians should study the past so that we may move on, while respecting the power of the human will and imagination to avoid preventable disasters and to increase the life chances for those who are needlessly burdened and slaughtered. We cannot be, must not be, “activist scholars” for that presumes a god-like omniscience or obeisance to a social movement; perhaps too that there is a telos or predetermined course for history, which we are hurrying on or making with our timely interventions. It is hard enough to do any kind of helpful history, given the sources at hand. But we can and must compare competing narratives of the past as disseminated by politicians, pundits, and all other communicators. Nothing and no one is sacred, especially not our own work. Writing history entails reconfiguring the past and sometimes, with new evidence,  overthrowing our own most cherished assumptions. If we can’t do that, we don’t deserve the name of scholar, but are courtiers or theologians.  Which is fine, only don’t pretend to be a participant in the Enlightenment or in the profession of  writing history.

4. Herman Melville, when queried, answered that he was neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but realistic. That is why I continue to read Melville and inspect the distortions of his work promulgated by optimists and pessimists.  Historians had better be close readers.

October 23, 2010

The Neutral State and the Williams firing

Vivian Schiller, CEO of NPR

[Added 10-24-2010: On local NPR station KPCC, Brooke Gladstone took up the cudgel to beat JW. Her strategy was to play the neutral examiner of facts: 1. The media were wrong to truncate JW’s original comment on Fox, hence making him sound like a bigot; but 2. Given his record at NPR as transmitted [vaguely] by Vivian Schiller, he should have been terminated long ago.] What do Ilearn from the abrupt firing of “news analyst” Juan Williams by National Public Radio on Wednesday October 20, 2010, a day and a half after he expressed anxiety (on Fox News Channel) when persons in Muslim dress shared a plane flight with him? The dumping of NPR’s token black male excited the media, NPR listeners, and the political class–and the fallout continues as of this writing–but no one has attempted an explanation of what a “news analyst” does, nor has anyone made the connection to the supposed “neutrality” of the State, or to the “neutrality” of the arbitrator of disputes as asserted by the moderate men, i.e., social democrats and “progressives.”

   Apart from the astonishing control-freakiness of NPR management, it is worth noting what “analysis” means to a professional historian who also addresses a general public, and did so on another public broadcasting outlet before graduate school.

    I remember being chided by one KPFK listener when I was program director (2-81 through 7-82). This caller during my weekly live Report to the Listener complained that our News Department (headed by Marc Cooper) was not “objective.” I remember my answer very well. I asked her if she would not prefer an acknowledged subjectivity to the phony air of objectivity put forth by commercial media? I also recall that my happiest moment on the radio, ever, was not the broadcast of my own work, but that of a high school girl who had written a poem for one of our Peace Festivals, expressing her revulsion at the dominant war-celebrating culture. It ended with the defiant line “Hell no, we’re not objective!” It was a creditable effort, but what made the poem memorable to me was how I programmed it. During the news broadcast, I had her read the poem in between news reports, which one would be determined by chance. Entirely by accident, it happened that the report preceding her reading related to the purchase of a new type of airplane by the Pentagon. She read her poem live; I and two of her friends were in the control room when she read it, and my eyes filled with tears. (I think I must have gotten the idea from Cocteau’s movie Orpheus, when a strange message comes out of the radio, unexplained.)

     It was the opportunity to shake things up, form-wise, that endeared me to Pacifica, and made my firing so traumatic. I feel for Juan Williams, but neither he nor his former colleagues in public radio would ever have tampered with the categories as I felt free to do, let alone to stigmatize the phony objectivity of NPR, funded not only by the government but by tax-deductible donations from listeners, foundations, corporate grants, all of whom view themselves proudly as progressives on the side of the angels, and never, never taking sides.

     But though as an artist and troublemaker, I messed with the format, as an historian I am supposed to be objective, however much postmodernists like Hayden White deny the possibility of doing history altogether (we are supposedly incapable of telling stories that depart from literary genres).  Still, bowing to the limitations of my own intelligence and to the blinkered times in which I live, I try to be relatively objective. How? Let me count two of the obstacles to my omniscience.

1. We are limited by our access to facts, never more so than when we opine about current events. But governments are highly secretive. It may be decades before historians are allowed access to classified materials, or to the private papers of movers and shakers. For instance, I have written extensively about the elusive and low-profile Dr. Henry A. Murray on this website, but I was able to see only a tiny fraction of his Melville notes in 1991, and then denied access in 1995 to the rest of his immense cache of personal papers held by Harvard University Archives. His widow, Caroline Fish Murray, wanted to see an outline of a prospective biography before she would allow me to view his correspondence, although she had given blanket permission to his lubricious biographer Forrest Robinson some years earlier.  It costs Harvard money to catalog and maintain the Murray papers, and we pay for it indirectly because Harvard U., though exclusive and independent in its selection of overseers, is an educational institution like NPR, so bequests are deducted from the taxable estate of the donor. So how does this affect my writing on Murray? I must make inferences and read him with an eye to ideology, as I would do with materials of persons long deceased.

2. We are supposed to know the “context” of events so that our interpretations (or “analyses”) are not distorted. But the “context” is enormous and much of it is unknown to the “analyst.” But even when we think we have a handle on “the big picture” we must, as historians, locate the relevant context. That is, we must get inside the heads of the persons we “analyze” and present to the world, so that we can determine the precipitating event that cause the action we write about. Is this always possible? When I was in graduate school, I had to take an introduction to the various sub-fields of history. Our first assignment was to rank the causes of the Salem Witch Trials of the 1690s. Never one to change my spots overnight, I titled my paper “How Could White People Act Like This?”  I still don’t know how to rank the causes of this event, my point being that we can do our best to reconstruct a situation, but we are only making a stab at it, even when we have lots of data to work with. So much for interpretation by “analysts.”

   But some aspects of the context are determinable, for there are always, but always, visible or invisible antagonists (including their families: father, mother, siblings) addressed by historical actors. That is why I called my blog on Herder and Fichte a foray into dialectics. They were seemingly arguing against the mechanical materialists, those Jack the Rippers of the social fabric, who preceded them, and who would later be blamed for the excesses of the French Revolution. So when we learn the range of debates, of all the related social conflicts, we may possibly read texts with greater accuracy, finding ideology and propaganda in what we first took to be a sober account of the writer’s world. This is labor-intensive and not for the impatient.

   To conclude what should be a book, not a blog, I doubt that anyone at NPR, deep down, believes that they are objective. But they must say so, because that is the deal they made with the devil as middle managers. Progressivism, with its usually undetected co-opting of the Enlightenment and science, forces its followers to put on that impassive mask, lest their inner resentments at being managed, should reveal themselves. Juan Williams, ever since I have seen and heard him on Fox News Channel, has almost always raised his voice as if speaking to partly deaf people. I know how he feels. Or maybe not.

July 4, 2010

Pacifica radio and the progressive movement

Paul G. Hoffman and Robert M. Hutchins

From the beginning of KPFA, Pacifica radio was always a creature of the social cohesion policies of left-liberals, especially appealing to counter-culture anarchists. It was never a radical (Marxist-Leninist) radio station as is widely believed. Sadly, it has now deteriorated to a network that is not only heavily in debt, but a home to conspiracy theorists.  I told the story of my own experience there on this website, but it seems timely still. Pictured are Paul G.  Hoffman and his close friend and ally Robert M. Hutchins. Their role in the adoption of Keynesian economics in American big business along with discreet mind-management is told elsewhere on this website. (For starters, see https://clarespark.com/2010/06/19/committee-for-economic-development-and-its-sociologists/ in tandem with https://clarespark.com/2011/01/02/the-watchbird-state/.) For my personal experience at Pacifica as both programmer and Progam Director, see the links below, which are both analytical and anecdotal. Because Pacifica was the precursor to NPR, “community radio”, and “alternative media” (including “indy media” and even the Sundance Film Festival) these blogs and my memoir are worth your attention.

https://clarespark.com/2009/08/13/my-life-at-pacifica-radio-a-memoir-part-one/

https://clarespark.com/2009/08/18/storming-pacifica-revising-my-view-of-pacifica-history-july-22-1999/

https://clarespark.com/2009/08/14/my-life-at-pacifica-part-two-with-gory-details-and-more-on-identity/

https://clarespark.com/2012/09/14/ron-paul-anarchist-in-chief/ (on overlap between left-wing and right-wing anarchism: Phillip Smyth author).

https://clarespark.com/2015/09/30/pacifica-radio-and-how-i-achieved-free-speech/

October 1, 2009

Perfectly Progressive Parenthood

Po Bronson, author

   Until my posting of the Anne Hutchinson witch-hunt essay, I hadn’t said anything here about the battle of the sexes, a fact of life that I never doubted in adulthood. At my age I can say, though it is impermissible to claim,  that I will probably never fully understand most men (no matter how much I love them), and I am quite certain that men will never understand women, or given unequal gender relations, will they even need to. I could say the same about sibling rivalry and the murderous impulses it calls forth, but you can read all about that in the Biblical book of Genesis. But never in my blogging life did I encounter a more blatant example of “progressive” tomfoolery than in the interview NPR’s Terri Gross conducted with the co-author of a book about the latest advice to would-be perfectly progressive parents. The primary subject was the value of mommy and daddy fighting in front of the kids, hitherto something of a taboo in the old dispensation.  

    For the past few months many of the essays on this website have been identifying one overarching theme in the ideology of “progressives”: the belief that all conflict can be peacefully resolved through the mutual “cultural” understanding that leads to better diplomacy and compromise. It is simply a question of management, properly understood if we would only listen to [infallible] experts, the ones who artfully and scientifically mediate to bring “conflict-resolution.”  So when I heard an interview with one such expert I didn’t know whether to be relieved that my analysis was correct, or to wonder yet again how such a blatant ideological intrusion into and about family life can earn research funding, a book publisher and air time on public radio. Here is a section of the transcript of Fresh Air, 30 Sept. 2009. (The full transcript can be found on the internet.)

Mr. PO BRONSON (Author, “Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children”[co-author Ashley Merryman]): Mark Cummings’ lab out of the University of Notre Dame is looking at this very phenomenon very closely and he has parents simulate arguments in front of their kids, where he has kids watch videotapes of arguments and he has parents as conspirators in his experiments. And normally when a kid watches a fight between parents, an argument, a quite heated conflict, that kid will then lash out afterwards or during it and act aggressive. But there’s one thing that happened in those experiments that makes all that aggressive behavior in the child go away: it’s watching the fight get resolved, it’s watching your parents work it out in a constructive way.

And when I read this, I understood that taking it upstairs, you know, I might have a moment of conflict with my wife and I’ll say that according to Cummings’ data, you know, parents are bickering to each other seven to eight times a day and the kids are a witness to it. It’s wrong to imagine that kids aren’t seeing this and feeling it. But when we take the arguments upstairs, the kid sees the fight begin but never sees it amicably resolved, and that’s hurting kids more.

In fact, Cummings’ work is now showing, this most recent data, that kids who are exposed to constructive conflict, and it can be quite heated, but when it’s resolved and worked out in front of the kids, those kids are being reported by teachers as having better well-being and better social skills and they’re sort of more adaptive in their environment at school. We need to – parents need to model for kids how to work through arguments – how to work it out.

GROSS: So are you suggesting parents fight in front of the kids and then hopefully they’ll reach an end of the argument, have an amicable resolution, then the kid will learn from that?

Mr. BRONSON: Mark Cummings would never say, hey, go out and fight in front of your kids, it’s a really good thing to do. He would say that, more that don’t pretend your kid isn’t seeing some of your conflict. Parents believe they are sort of hiding their kids from this conflict but the kids can feel it. And so the important thing is to be aware when you did start something in front of your kids to then really try to model, for the benefit of the kids, working it out. And that might mean holding your tongue and enthusiastically trying to compromise in front of the kids so they can see from their parents how to do this with their own friendships. [“in fact” my emphasis, end transcript]

GET ME SOME SMELLING SALTS! Just rereading this, I had to get up and walk around to calm myself. Apart from the vagueness (which alone is enough to discredit the reportage), the general obliviousness to the raucous and often unmanageable, poorly understood emotions aroused within families and all intimate relationships is breathtaking. Only the intellectually lobotomized could come up with such quackish nostrums as best-selling author Bo Bronson in his report of Mark Cummings research. My readers will already have asked themselves, what are the conflicts about: the trivial that are easily worked out, or major differences in values and direction? Lacking such specificity, we do not know how to proceed in evaluating this research. Are the parents arguing about who drives the kids to school, or how to handle bullies (fighting back or appeasing?), or what religious practices to follow, if any? Is father philandering? Is mother unspeakably bored and overworked? Is the new baby arousing murderous impulses in the older children? Are the parents in disagreement over how far to push their children to achieve at or beyond their own levels? Are the fights over apparent trivia masking much deeper unresolved conflicts within either or both parents? (Make your own list, dear reader.)

     It was once held that children need safety and solidarity between parents, and that open (or subtle) warfare between parents creates intolerable, but often repressed, anxiety as the children feel forced to choose sides; then, later, comes the desire to reconstruct the perfectly happy family that never existed. Such veterans of the family civil wars can become fixated on any demagogue who promises utopian solutions and peace among the nations, no matter how much their material interests clash. In today’s world, such a one may refuse to believe that there is a real threat from Islamic fundamentalism, or blames such threats, assuming they even exist, upon themselves as imperialist Americans or Israelis or “Jewish” capitalism (that is the money-grubbing exploitative variety, as opposed to the “progressive” variety that brings “social justice”).*

      Social conservatives usually argue that their religious traditions recognize the foulness of human nature, hence religion is required to order social life. Thus they emphasize inborn human weakness rather than strength. By strength, I refer not to an indwelling and purifying Christ-Savior, but to the demonstrable human capacity for overcoming anti-social impulses under certain conditions, including discovering the repressed secrets of the self. In the foundational tenet of conservatism, however, “progressives” are necessarily utopian perfectionists who think, like Rousseau, that our species is innately good. In the fiction created by such conservatives, Nathaniel Hawthorne, for instance, the mad scientist is conflated with all would-be social reformers, destroyers all: see his short stories “The Birthmark” or “Ethan Brand.” Unlike Hawthorne, Po Bronson is obviously speaking to parents who see themselves, their children, and their world as entirely manageable once they have mastered the latest techniques.

    I find myself more in accordance with Freud’s essay “Thoughts for the Time on War and Death” (1915), cited in several prior blogs: Freud was dealing with his own disillusion with the idea of Progress, i.e., that civilization would end wars, for who could doubt that Germany, England, and France were ultra-civilized, and yet the casualties and brutality of the Great War were terrible. What I got from Freud’s meditation was this: What we call “civilization” sits lightly in the human psyche, and it is a constant, lifelong struggle to manage anger and frustration (what he would call “aggression”), just as it is often difficult to identify whether the anger is justified, what has caused it, and what, if anything, can be done to improve those institutional structures and practices that either instill rage or deflect it to unworthy, inappropriate objects. But such potentially tragic conclusions are terra incognita to Bronson and NPR, where all endings are happy ones, if you would just fall in line with the latest newsflash from the front.

*Budd Schulberg’s fascinating memoir of his childhood and adolescence is instructive on this point, for he detailed the ongoing conflict between his parents and his naive determination to reconcile them. He then goes on later to write What Makes Sammy Run, a story of a ruthless Jewish operator, Sammy Glick, balanced by the assimilated narrator, a better type of Jew.

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