YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

April 17, 2015

The ongoing appeal of the Leftist-dominated Popular Front

popular-front-boxThis blog is about why Popular Front political coalition continues to exist, and why it is hard for the Right to resist “leftist” smears of fascism and racism. But it is primarily about the emotional appeal of a far left faction within American “progressive politics.”

Where did the Popular Front originate? Stalin’s sectarianism persisted until 1935, when he decided to bond with the hated bourgeois parties against variants of fascism as it emerged in China (on Chinese massacres, see Harold Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution), Germany, Italy, and Spain. Whereas social democrats had formerly been stigmatized as warmongers and enablers of repressive anti-communist regimes, now it was deemed expedient to join with other “bureaucratic collectivists” (statists) to defeat laissez-faire capitalism (specifically finance capital) against creeping or already existent “fascism.” (https://clarespark.com/2013/04/21/fascism-what-it-is-what-it-is-not/)

Popular Front politics persist today in the “progressive movement” (Mrs. Clinton!) that confusingly blends “the working class” with “the middle class.” (See the distinction here: https://clarespark.com/2010/09/11/is-wall-street-slaughtering-the-middle-class/.) It remains moot for me whether the Reds swallowed the New Deal or the conservative reforms initiated by FDR swallowed and defanged the Communists. What is obvious is that such New Deal innovations as multiculturalism (covertly racist but in line with the “tolerance” that ameliorated “prejudice”) were taken up by academics and journalists once associated solely with the “hard Left.” Reading such as Alan Wald (a Trotskyist who lauds Stalinists, and is  a prominent cultural historian of the literary left teaching at the U. of Michigan: https://www.lsa.umich.edu/english/people/profile.asp?ID=299), it is hard to discern a clear line that would separate Wald from the New Dealers, for instance, in his recent book Trinity of Passion (2007), Professor Wald adopts the lingo of the Pan-Africanists, referring to his “Black” victims and heroes as “African Americans.” This tic should be, but is not, anathema to an anti-racist of the Left. (Liberal feminist and internationalist Martha Nussbaum adopts the same “multicultural” terminology.)


What is the appeal of Leninism, apart from its obvious advantages in gaining employment for leading academics and journalists?

First, it appropriates an already existing emotional repertoire promoted by mass and high culture alike: that of melodrama with its vocabulary of clearly defined heroes, villains, and victims. (See https://clarespark.com/2013/08/09/melodrama-and-its-appeal/.)

Second, with such clear boundaries between categories, even the most humble person can identify with the lineage of heroes speaking truth to power and, at least imaginatively, lifting up the “oppressed” to the role of major actors in the melodrama of history.

Third, the script is easily mastered. It takes no deep knowledge of political history or economics to assume the mantle of heroism, even Prometheanism at its most masochistic. Marx’s theory of exploitation and/or his concept of alienation are easily mastered axioms, resonant with pre-existent popular resentments of the wealthy and privileged. (Academic social theorists of the Foucauldian or Thompsonian Left will find this blog hilariously retarded, but I am assuming that it was vulgar Marxism that appealed to the populist-progressives.)

Fourth, progressivism affords to the misfits and escape artists “a kind of home” (to quote Pacifica Founder Lew K. Hill’s suicide note) for the nerds and the marginal, who do not see themselves reflected in popular culture. (See https://clarespark.com/2010/10/21/links-to-pacifica-memoirs/.)


Fifth, the affiliation with New Deal progressivism and communism alike, purifies the self of negative emotions, such as envy. As long as “equality” refers solely to equality of condition as opposed to equality of opportunity, one need not blame oneself for what the “dominant culture” refers to as “failure.” The (imaginary) “system” is “rigged.” (Just ask any Democrat.)

I started this entry with a brief mention of the persistent Popular Front Against Fascism. It is obvious that for all “progressives” the Republican Party and/or the Tea Party are the current “fascists” who must be defeated, lest the Dark Night (“reaction,”  i.e., proto-fascist nationalism and imperialism) of the twentieth century returns.

May 10, 2014

Why I left “the Left”

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Lefties.another-perfect-day-four-songs-for-the-left-behind-2012Although I share many of the more libertarian proclivities of social democracy, readers of this website must have noticed that I am a fierce, obsessive critic of social democrats—a passion that may be found on either the neoliberal Right or the Marxist-Leninist Left. Today, under the Obama administration, it is almost impossible to separate social democrats (New Deal liberals/conservative reformers) from any of the Marx-derived sects that dot the landscape of liberal-leftist dissent. (See https://clarespark.com/2009/09/19/populism-progressivism-and-corporatist-liberalism-in-the-nation-1919/, for the source of confusion.)

In the sense that most readers will understand “the Left” I was never a member of any Marxist or Leninist sect, but my positions at Pacifica Radio in Los Angeles gave me access to leading figures in the arts in Los Angeles and New York. It seemed to me during the 1970s upheavals that the leftist intellectuals were by far the best educated and incisive on the ills of society that I addressed on the radio in my coverage of the art world and its institutions. Indeed, while Program Director of KPFK-FM I put as many as possible on the air.Then, when I was fired by the manager, Jim Berland, and I lost “power” nearly all of them drifted away, or perhaps I left them.

This blog is about some of the incidents that bothered me while I was in that milieu, and that still disturb me. One reason I went to graduate school in history was to understand my own prior attachments. I will not name names, but assure the reader that my contacts were with leading figures in the arts and scholarship. Many of these nameless ones are superstars in their fields.

On Archives. One critical theorist of great note, up there with Jacques Derrida, asked me to write him a memo on “the archive”. I love archives as I do all research in primary source materials, and I did not know that “the archive” as such was under attack from both Left and Right. (Leftists claim that they are elite-controlled, hence exclude the good stuff—daily atrocities suffered by ordinary people– while one biographer of Joe McCarthy, M. Stanton Evans, is also suspicious, claiming that key documents have disappeared, owing to political hanky-panky from his enemies.)
After reading my memo in praise of archives, my friend confessed that just entering a library gives him panic attacks.

On Hitler. One Leninist read my original work on Hitler’s psyche and we met for coffee to discuss it. He excitedly told me that he agreed with Hitler on many points, but then telephoned me after I got home to deny that he had ever said such a thing. He sounded panicky, so I didn’t argue with him.

On lawlessness. I was advised (almost ordered) by one figure in the arts, to steal from some wealthy art collector so that I would have the experience of rejecting bourgeois rules and morality. This sort of duplicity was advocated by more than one lefty I knew, trying to draw me into opposition.

On fighting to win. I intuitively knew ahead of my firing as PD that it was about to happen as I would have nothing to do with the commandments of multiculturalism and populism, and warned my anti-imperialist supporters at KPFK on a Friday night that we should prepare to defend my job. Sure enough, I was fired the following Monday afternoon; we could have shut down several of the news rooms at Pacifica in protest, but the most action in the defense of the direction I was pushing the station was a letter-writing campaign. The President of the Pacifica station begged me to test the administrative procedures he had put in place, and, naively, I complied, but he still upheld “at will” firings–a no, no among labor activists. (It is interesting that this was in the midst of fund drive preparation in which the theme for the Fall Fund Drive was to be science versus myth.) I concluded that “the Left” at Pacifica was weaker than I am on my own. It was then that I went back to school to study witch hunts and the history of multiculturalism as social policy.

On switches. I had been a Democrat all my voting life, but as I read the critiques of academic neo-orthodoxy by David Horowitz and Peter Collier in the 1990s, I found their observations to be exactly accurate and in line with my own experience in graduate school—where I found myself highly critical of most of the lines handed down by senior faculty—most of whom were somewhere on the Left, either as left-feminists or as anti-Americans. Graduate school was no different than Pacifica Radio or other “liberal” institutions. I ran into David Horowitz on the street in Pacific Palisades where he was then living, and we struck up an acquaintance. When David H and his wife came to my book signing party in Brentwood (shortly after 9-11-2001), one former very prominent lefty faculty friend of mine was present and interrogated my sister regarding the anomaly of David H’s attendance. Sometime during that same period, another academic of the Left asked me if it was true that David H was a friend of mine. Neither of these scholars is speaking to me today. You can’t leave the mob.

Along these same lines, I unwarily told a mentor and close friend, a liberal, that I had voted for Bush in 2000 (on the theory that Al Gore was unstable and that “Dubya” was an acceptable alternative). I didn’t expect him to lash out at me, though, true to his self-image as a liberal, he did call me the next day to apologize for his harsh criticism. Things were never the same after that between us.

On schematic explanations for everything bad. It occurred to me after reviewing my disastrous attachments to persons on “the Left” that the attraction to Marxism and then Leninism on the part of my former friends was the simplicity of Marxist ideology. It was easy to master, and even the most sectarian memberships gave one a substitute family of like-minded individuals, all of whom were, in their own minds, morally and intellectually superior to the rest of America.

Real scholarship is messy, tentative, and you rarely know if your readings of documents or syntheses (narratives) of what really happened are even close to accuracy.

I left the Left because this sort of open-endedness and inconclusiveness is frowned upon. Seemingly, it is imagined by prominent and/or blogging leftist academics that I am either a neocon or a conservative scholar, and a dastardly turncoat. I would rather be known as a scholar with strong pluralist tendencies who never betrays evidence or prematurely draws conclusions—including why I left the Left. This is a partial inventory, nothing more, and is always subject to revision and correction.

[For a more recent blog on internal contradictions within “Marxist Leninism” see https://clarespark.com/2014/06/07/marx-vs-lenin/.%5D

UK politician Ed Miliband

UK politician Ed Miliband

March 28, 2014

Populism and pop culture: good or bad for the republic?

Populism3Much of this website has been devoted to the analysis of populist demagoguery, with ample quotations from the past and present. Another priority of mine has been the state of popular culture criticism, emanating from both Left and Right. This blog is a guide to my own thinking about 1. Populism as ideology and its targets; 2. Populism as reasonable suspicion of elites and “experts”; and 3. The populist character of major television shows and movies despite the impression that single figures or “billionaires” directly direct their content.

First, the original populists were farmers demanding that currency be placed on both gold and silver standards. They also resented the excessive rates demanded by railroads that transported their goods. Muckrakers like Frank Norris (The Octopus, 1901) appealed to this constituency and their progressive sympathizers, who went on to co-opt the original populist demands, for instance, Louis Brandeis’s first major study was of railroads, their practices and finances. (On Norris see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Octopus:_A_Story_of_California. On Brandeis’s career, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_Brandeis#Against_monopolies. I read Melvin Urofsky’s biography, that highlighted the early interest in railroads.) populistantisemitism In a mass society, “flooded” with “swarms”  of immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was not surprising that the invention of movies would appeal to the new arrivals and their taste for spectacle, glitter, adventure, shape-shifting, scandalously naughty and corrupt rich people (not dissimilar from those who had dominated the European countries from which they had fled), sex, and violence (part of their everyday lives, both here in the new tough cities, and in the old country), triumph over adversity, and shows of virtuosic force, either military or in sports.

Movies and television shows remain populist in the sense that they appeal to ordinary working class and middle class viewers (“ordinary people”), with only a few arty movies made to maintain respectability and an aura of literariness to the more educated urban viewer. And such offerings might be reactionary, as in the esteemed film The Remains of the Day (1993); I wrote about its content here: https://clarespark.com/2014/04/21/remains-of-the-day-revisited/.

In my experience, leftists that I once knew did not depart from this essentially Leninist populism. (Marx was more favorable to the bourgeoisie, who were developing the productive forces, and who were likely to split over the inevitable working class revolution that he anticipated. Whereas Lenin was influenced by J. A. Hobson, who publicized the notion that an international cabal of Jewish financiers would not only inspire imperialist war, but would control newspapers and other media. Marx’s early essays “On The Jewish Question,” or on money as the universal pimp, however, dealt with Jews as hucksters and the embodiment of the money power, whose reign would be overthrown in the new dispensation.)

For instance, Pacifica radio [where I was program director for eighteen months (2-81 through7-82), and before and after that, a volunteer program producer on the politics of the arts–1969-1998] was plainly populistic and anti-imperialistic, not radical in the Marxian sense, though the news department supported the uprising in El Salvador and the Nicaraguan revolution. I recall my boss, the manager Jim Berland, warning me not to allow programmers to use the term “capitalism.” Our target should be “big business.” This is a typical petit bourgeois (populist) move, and bears no resemblance to European or American communism as originally formulated. Similarly, like other “community broadcasters” we were to appeal to the listener sponsors by mentioning our deviation from “corporate/commercial media”—this referred to presumably billionaire-controlled outlets intended solely for the spread of propaganda favorable to imperialism, finance capital, and rich people in general.

The flaw in this reasoning is that big bad mass media always was populist—but with commercial interruptions. NPR and PBS make their appeals on that basis (sometimes claiming the higher objectivity and gravitas). The antisemitism of the old WASP elite is retained in its denigration of “Hollywood” as generically Jewish—a claim that may be taken advantage of by some professional right-wing pundits , who want to return “traditional Christian values” to “popular culture.” Populist impulses exist across the political spectrum, but are frequently reactionary.

What is not populism?Elites” or “experts” may be corrupt or legitimately superior in their talents, labors, and contributions to society. To view each and every one with skepticism may be populistic, or it may be valuable inquisitiveness that we must support, even as “discovery anxiety” sets in. But don’t look to the bought-intelligentsia and kept-journalists who “analyze” politicians, social policy, education, and mass media productions. They are part of the legitimacy apparatus that is partly responsible for the Great Dumbing Down of our country. Ask your children to make a distinction between a democracy and a [democratic] republic, and watch their puzzled faces. I am sometimes told that my blogs are “over the heads” of even educated readers. I welcome questions if I yield to esotericism or obscurantism. It is probably my writing, which is sometimes dense and compressed, and not the usual thing on the internet. populistrage

September 25, 2013

Ted Cruz, Generational conflict, and Remarque

GermanWarPosterWhile Ted Cruz was calling Republicans to arms to overturn Obamacare, I was watching the movie version of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), in its uncut version.  (Ben Urwand insists that Universal pictures caved to German pressure to remove certain incendiary scenes that impugned the older generation for mindless nationalism that slaughtered their young soldiers. I watched the uncut version that attacked the upper class older generation for murdering their unprepared lower class young men, through glorifying sacrifice for the Fatherland, teaching irrelevant subjects in schools, and for inadequate training, food, leadership, hygiene, and medical care while in combat.)

The original uncut movie reminded me of the pacifism that moved the formation of Pacifica Radio immediately after WW2. Such Remarque-like antiwar sentiments lack an analysis of the lead up to wars, but imagine an undifferentiated class of enlisted men, badly led by undifferentiated old and middle-aged men.  Indeed, Remarque himself was born into a Catholic home (his father was a bookbinder, not a politicized worker), then after his recovery from wounds in the war, went on to write numerous novels after his autobiographical first novel (that of course was banned and burned by the (relatively young) Nazis in power. His brazen book was riotously protested before the Nazis were put in power by…old men: the monarchists and conservative nationalists of Germany who hoped to control Hitler and his hotheads in order to destroy communism and the independent working class movement that opposed the Nazis.

Remarque, a handsome fellow, went on to a successful career as an author and affairs with glamorous movie stars. In trying to place him as if he existed later in the 20th century, I would have to locate him in the counter-culture, not in any political faction. In the 1960s, boys like him might have been draft dodgers or protesters against the Viet Nam conflict. But the more politicized would have had a more sophisticated analysis of WW1. For instance, they might have looked to rival imperialisms, or to the failure of the Socialist Parties to oppose the war in 1914, voting for war credits in Germany.  Or if more attuned to the errors of diplomats, they might have come to agree with Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War.

By the time Remarque wrote his novel, disillusion with the idea of progress pervaded what we now call the Jazz Age. Hemingway had written two antiwar novels (The Sun Also Rises about an aimless generation), then A Farewell to Arms (more overtly antiwar and vaguely autobiographical).  I have found one quote where Remarque prefigured the anti-technology sentiments of the counter culture, arguing for a vague humanism and faith in humanity; he was no nihilist.


The conflict du jour is over whether or not Ted Cruz is a hothead and ambitious for personal power. I am reminded of a line from the much lauded House of Cards remake, offered by Netflix to its subscribers. This time, a ruthless Southern Democrat, “Francis Underwood” (played by Kevin Spacey), explains to the audience that he isn’t in it for the money but for “power”.  Such is the charge now leveled at Ted Cruz by an older generation that hews to a more bipartisan approach to the management of social policy.

We know much more about this political war than Remarque knew about his war as an eighteen year old Catholic boy.  Given what I have studied about the moderate men—i.e, the older generation in charge today, it is difficult not to call them out for utopianism.  (See https://clarespark.com/2010/11/06/moderate-men-falling-down/.)


August 1, 2013

Power, relationships, identity

identityI wrote this blog because the notion of “power” as an end in itself is often mentioned by some friends on Facebook, or at times by politicians who accuse their opponents of not having real issues, but only unseemly “ambition” of the type that leads to world wars. To me, there is no such thing as a perverse and demonic will to power. “Power” to me is highly moral and involves self-control, concrete achievements, and the habits that foster humility and lifelong learning. I was raised to value individuality, but never at the expense of responsibility to a larger human community. In my youth, a healthy identity was contrasted to mental illness; the functioning self could distinguish between reality and fantasy, between Real and Fake. Little did I know that I was living in a dream world, for the very notion of the individual is passé, as is originality. Indeed, I should probably view my stubborn search for the truth, no matter how much mockery I engender, as “oppositional defiant disorder.”

If there is any one theme that characterizes this website it is in dating the turn away from the individual as the source of value and identity, to “the individual-in-society”. In other words, at some point in history, we would be defined by our relationships to groups, not by the accuracy of our perceptions. “Society” referred to a bunch of “sub-cultures” that have their own “focal concerns”, e.g. for the urban lower classes that focal concern is “trouble.” At least that is what I learned during my year in graduate school at Harvard in 1958-59. I also learned in the history of science course, taught by I. Bernard Cohen that science was a bit of a racket, and that the skeptic David Hume had proved it beyond cavil.

Fast forward to my stint as program director of radio station KPFK in Los Angeles, 2/1/81 through 7/31/1982. Unbeknownst to me, the concept of the relatively autonomous individual was long gone, and I was hired to implement a policy of “multiculturalism,” and my firing was coincidental with my plans for a Fall Fund Drive where we would challenge myth-making versus science and why such a conflict even existed. The pretext for my firing was that I was bad at smoothing over inter-station conflicts: I should have manufactured harmony where irreconcilable conflicts existed between Trotskyists, Stalinists, and the counter-culture.  (I have told much of this story here: https://clarespark.com/2010/10/21/links-to-pacifica-memoirs/.)  From what I was told, the local CP organized against me because I had allowed too many Trotskyists on the air, and they were speaking about the Spanish Civil War, breaking the Popular Front line that the way to view history during the interwar period was to postulate “the People” against “Fascism.” And only communists opposed fascism, in their view. I was denounced to local progressive organizations by Dorothy Healey, former secretary for the Southern California branch of the CPUSA, as an anti-feminist, an antisemite, and as personally destructive.

It was not until I returned to graduate school at UCLA and was fixated on witch hunts (!) that I figured out why I was purged from Pacifica Radio, which had become my home away from home, and the primary source of my identity as a plucky defender of artistic and intellectual freedom. As long as I was a mere programmer concentrating on free thought, I was safe, for I had listeners who ponied up during Fund Drives. It was my role as administrator that cooked my goose (despite our increasing subscriptions). Until then, I had no idea that individualism was “out” while “culturalism” was “in.”

I was fired for telling the truth (as I understood it), for protecting my hard-won identity as one who recognized conflicts inside myself and in the culture at large. You might say that I benefited from the ecological approach to institutions taught to me at Cornell, where I graduated from the science teaching program available free to all New York State residents in the School of Agriculture (assuming that you had good grades). So much of my programming on “The Sour Apple Tree” involved how institutional constraints limited artistic creativity.

A lot of good my adherence to footnotes and scientific method did me later on: at UCLA, I was labeled as that “hysterical feminist” or “the last positivist.”  I had yet to be called a troublemaking Jew to my face. So much for Cornell U. and its respect for empiricism. But despite the insults, I pressed on. How long had this “culturalism” thing been going on? Based on my research at UCLA, I could date the beginning of the turn toward “culturalism” in the mid-1930s, and have done so here: https://clarespark.com/2009/12/12/switching-the-enlightenment-corporatist-liberalism-and-the-revision-of-american-history/. (A version of this essay was published on History News Network.) But I would prefer to begin with the response to the Soviet Coup of October 1917, as the progressives at the Nation magazine advised conservative readers to move sharply to the left to outflank both the Socialist Party and the I.W.W. This dates the turn away from “materialism” toward “idealist” formulations of social conflict to 1919. See https://clarespark.com/2009/09/19/populism-progressivism-and-corporatist-liberalism-in-the-nation-1919/. Even that periodization has flaws. I researched the preferred style in teaching American literature from the Gilded Age to the present here: https://clarespark.com/2009/09/23/progressives-and-the-teaching-of-american-literature/.

(Much of this material was incorporated into my book on the Melville Revival, Hunting Captain Ahab.) In sum, all my studies strongly suggested that scientific method was questioned and usually discarded for the sake of “the moderate men,” social cohesion, and political stability. Some reviewers of my book ms. prior to publication accused me of liking my own readings too much: I was obviously another bossy Captain Ahab. Is it any wonder I emphasized his declaration of independence: “Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.”  (For related blogs see https://clarespark.com/2012/12/18/blogs-on-mental-health/, and https://clarespark.com/2010/04/22/links-to-blogs-on-military-psychiatry/.)


July 29, 2013

Gellhorn: the “we are all lost” generation

MGEHWhat follows are very personal thoughts and intuitions I have about Martha Gellhorn. I have drafted a review of the HBO movie Hemingway and Gellhorn for an academic journal. I may not disclose it, so here are some of my impressions that are not in the review.  The movie has been discussed in newspapers and websites all over the world, with only two critical ones: in Vanity Fair and GQ. But neither delved into the politics of the movie. One should wonder at the capacities of movie reviewers to open up a film for critical scrutiny (by that I mean its ideological content). (The politics are described here: https://clarespark.com/2012/07/09/hbo-does-gellhorn-in-red/.)

Briefly, MG was much more interesting than the picture drawn in the silly HBO movie. She reminds me of all the Pacifica radio listeners and programmers I have ever known; i.e., she presented herself as a pacifist and the champion of the underdog; she was often despondent. What her connections might have been to the hard Left is unknowable: she was dogged, but not optimistic about the future, unlike Party members.  None of her articles on the Spanish Civil War suggests any kind of historical understanding of the differing factions in either the Loyalist side or the Franco-led Rebels. She retained a love for the Spanish “people” (they were not Reds!); she loved them as she would later love “Poles” but not Russians. That she despised “America” is clear; she appears to have believed in national character, much as today’s anti-American New Left does. HBO capitalized on the British Left’s elevation of her as a feminist heroine, to the detriment of Hemingway. He was sexist, vindictive, mendacious, and needy, while she was a liberated pioneer in journalism: up and about living her own life. In the HBO ending, she tenderly reads a letter of EH that she had kept in a drawer. This defies explanation, for she refused to discuss him with interviewers, and was enraged at the mention of his name. (She had “rage attacks” frequently, as one biographer reports.)


In 1959, she brought out a collection of earlier articles (The Face of War) with added material suggesting that we are the “all is lost” generation. Between the bomb and pollution, she saw only decline and death ahead. But as a vibrant personality, she attracted the arty celebrities of her day, Leonard Bernstein for one. She had great patter (humorous), but was, as EH said, ambitious and attracted to danger. She continued the politics of Edna Gellhorn, her uber-progressive mother (who became a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt), but was most influenced by her doctor father, hence the cleanliness fetish and her preoccupation with public health, along with the detailed obsessive descriptions of damage to bodies from war and poverty.

More: George Gellhorn, her gynecologist father, a German immigrant, (“half-Jewish”) was disappointed that she dropped out of Bryn Mawr after her third year and thought that her first novel, WHAT MAD PURSUIT (1934) was trashy. It is not surprising that she committed suicide when she was diagnosed with cancer at age 89. Earlier, she was a non-stop smoker (using it for calm?) and a heavy drinker. The movie got that right. But she put up with sex as an ineluctable male need that she must needs gratify until she met a doctor friend of Eleanor Roosevelt. Daddy! He wouldn’t leave his wife for MG. In my view, she was as neurotic as hell, a superheroine and daredevil, seeking scenes of so much fighting and danger that sometimes I think she made stuff up; other times I think she was just plucky and lucky. With all that said, I would have liked to have known her. She is ever so much more intelligent, even fascinating, than the character played by Nicole Kidman.


March 2, 2013

“Free Speech” and the internet

Moreau's Prometheus

Moreau’s Prometheus

This is not the first time I have broached this subject. See https://clarespark.com/2010/04/04/what-is-truth/.

When Melville’s Captain Ahab exclaimed “Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines,” the author left the exact meaning of “truth” undefined. For many Christian readers of Moby-Dick, truth signified the truth of Christ the Saviour and Redeemer, hence Ahab must be a wicked blasphemer and opponent of God. But for secularists (including deists), truth signified empirical fact, ethical universalism, and human rights. In my view, the “fighting Quaker” Ahab was another Father Mapple, an abolitionist. Many “anticlericals” of the 18th C. railed against censorship by authoritarian religious institutions, but their notion of the truth was intended to protect their own writing; such as Voltaire scrambled, using either pen names or publishing anonymously.

Sometime during the research for my book on Herman Melville’s resuscitation between the wars in the 20th century, I read the collected letters of Abigail Adams, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. It was clear that for these three icons of U.S. history, free speech was not about libel or slander, but about the search for worldly truth. Similarly, Alexander Hamilton, in the Crosswell case, argued that “truth” should be the standard in cases of libel and slander; that plaintiffs had to prove that their targets were actually lying before crying foul. (See https://clarespark.com/2012/03/03/sluts-and-pigs/.)

Several centuries later, Walter Lippmann, worried about the propensities of the new mass media to spread propaganda distortions, suggested that a special class of intellectuals be developed to determine who was lying in controverted matters: controversies where the facts were faraway and otherwise hidden from citizens who would then be asked to vote on problems that were foreign to their direct experience. (See https://clarespark.com/2009/08/19/noam-chomskys-misrepresentation-of-walter-lippmanns-chief-ideas-on-manufacturing-consent/.)

When I was appointed Program Director of KPFK-FM (the local Pacifica station in Los Angeles) in February 1981, I was asked immediately to discipline a late-night young programmer who was enamored of punk rock music, and who was allegedly using language that could have cost us our broadcasting license. After warning him, he resisted, and I cancelled his show, irritating his listeners. This action was the least of my troubles at Pacifica, but it got me thinking about our using the phrase “free speech” as a rationale for supporting our famously “non-commercial” radio station.

Now with the internet and the widespread use of fake screen names to shield individuals from litigation or any exposure at all as they vent their dissatisfaction and hatred of individuals and policies, along with pressure from organized groups to control speech in public space ( see https://clarespark.com/2013/01/12/hate-hard-liberty-quick-fixes/, and https://clarespark.com/2011/05/26/who-is-a-racist-now/) the question of free speech remains a live, controverted issue. What do I think about it?

It seems to me that venting rage, either directly through insulting one’s opponents, or through catharsis by listening to or playing raucous music or watching horror films, is no substitute for the careful analysis of problems, whether these be personal or social in scope. Indeed, it may be counter-revolutionary and  destructive apart from the relief of yelling at one’s enemies du jour. Venting and kvetching is no substitute for thoughtful analysis and the labor of organizing opposition.

I used to warn my Pacifica radio listeners that contributing to the radio station was only the beginning of a lengthy process. Later I read Stephen Eric Bronner’s book on the political limitations of German Expressionism that made the same point. There are numerous intellectuals and would be journalists and bloggers who hope to make a living wagging fingers (on both the Left and Right), and some succeed brilliantly at it, but following them accomplishes nothing apart from feeling entirely alienated from their targets, whose different life experience and opinions should be understood as a required prelude to social/political action.

So I end up with a typical 18th C. Enlightenment (classical liberal) view of “the truth.” It is about discovery and innovation, especially the willingness to swim against all currents and to cherish memory and a more accurate history, letting chips fall. (See https://clarespark.com/2013/02/21/discovery-anxiety/.) If this be romantic defiance or an attack upon “unity” as many an order-loving leftist or conservative would have it, so much the better for romantic defiance. The urge to forget and to conform knows no ideological boundaries. But we warned: as fictional detective Bobby Goren warned at the end of one of his episodes on Law and Order Criminal Intent: “The search for truth is not for the faint-hearted.” It was an Ahab/Hamiltonian moment.

1960s Berkeley radicals

1960s Berkeley radicals

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.)

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?

August 14, 2012

Sex, drugs, and my birthday

Clare circa 1972

The website has now lumbered past 175,000 views since I started it circa summer 2009. My family is thunderstruck that so many are interested in this bookworm’s research, but I suspect that many of the visitors expected another kind of blog, if I can judge by those coming from such sites as Pajamas Media. I think they want to feed their anger and frustration, as opposed to looking at ideology and the often confusing history of political coalitions: for instance, numerous viewers went to the index to my blogs on “Pacifica Radio and the Progressive Movement”( https://clarespark.com/2010/07/04/pacifica-radio-and-the-progressive-movement/) but only about 25% of them read even one of the blogs. Those who regularly come to my Facebook page have more inquiring minds and are much better gauges of how well the website is doing. And they regularly contribute material about which I was either ignorant or inattentive.

Indignation can be productive when it leads to closer examination of policy issues, but is depoliticizing when it goes no further than venting. We might even suppose that this sort of obsession with scandalous “inside dope” packs a sexual charge, a form of sexuality that is sadistic and addictive. I have seen it on numerous websites, and it is not confined to either Left or Right. Worse, trolls are everywhere; give me a real skunk any time: at least they announce their true nature.

I don’t have “inside dope” other than what I get from close readings of texts, or learned in my years at KPFK radio, or in graduate school at UCLA, where I witnessed the domination of Stalinists, Stalinoids, Trotskyists, and postmodernists, “up close and personal.” Even the feminists were more left-wing than feminist. Oddly, I was labeled “that hysterical feminist” even though at that time (1983-1993), I was more of a Marxist than anything else: that is, I could see through the postmodern “moral relativism” and nihilism of the pseudo-Left, and favored class analysis over sorting people out by gender or race. When I raised objections to separatist ethnic studies or women’s studies in favor an integrated approach to the writing of history, tenured professors would scream out loud, make odd gestures with their hands, or call me a racist. It was Pacifica Radio all over again where, on one of my last appearances, my defense of the Enlightenment and the life of Reason elicited charges that I was a CIA agent or worse.

Arnold Bocklin Medusa

So why was I called (behind my back) “that hysterical feminist”? I would guess that a woman standing up to the orthodoxies put forth by prominent professors and other famous intellectuals (of either gender) was too evocative of Gorgons and Medusas. If there is a “war on women” it is an ingrained fear of the independent, curious mind—one that is not gender specific. I stand with that human impulse, and with every writer or artist who goes her own way.  “To life!”

(Illustrated: a photo of Clare after a prank. I wore a Berkeley-generated Karl Marx sweat shirt, along with rhinestone drop earrings to an Ed Ruscha opening on La Cienega Blvd. during the early 1970s. It was a comment on Ruscha’s letter paintings, including his patronage, and I don’t think he appreciated the joke, though some of his visitors did.)

January 21, 2012

The persistence of white racism

Willie Horton

[This is a  companion piece to https://clarespark.com/2011/05/26/who-is-a-racist-now/ and https://clarespark.com/2012/12/01/petit-bourgeois-radicalism-and-obama/.]

Hollywood liberals along with other liberal elites take great pride in their rectified conduct regarding minorities, especially blacks. It is amazing how quickly an overwhelmingly white supremacist country overcame its racism. A few assassinations, a few urban riots, a few token reforms, positive images of “African Americans” in the movies and television, a national holiday for the martyred MLK Jr. and the problem disappeared from view. The media, academic multiculturalists, and the Democratic Party (with the selection of Barack Obama) did their part in maintaining the fiction that white people were, or were about to be, cleansed of the national sin. Even the South was redeemed, thanks to those politicians who, overnight it appears, became Republicans, the party of Abraham Lincoln, Charles Sumner, Thaddeus Stevens, Wendell Phillips, and Frederick Douglass. (This last contention is refuted by many of my Southern Facebook friends.)

During my youth I never saw blacks as authority figures, nor did any of my teachers at two Ivy League institutions (Cornell and Harvard) fret about the race problem (nor were there black or female faculty). Nor did I have Communist relations who would have told me I was a racist, or otherwise educated me about race relations in the country of my birth. I can still recall my revulsion at the sight of a black male arm in arm with a white woman in Greenwich Village during the late 1950s. And was not miscegenation the linchpin in the racialist repertoire? That, coupled with scary images of angry, murderous black men. (Lee Atwater knew what he was doing when he summoned the image of Willie Horton to defeat Dukakis in 1988. It was my horror at that move that led me to ask the question “How Do We Know When We Are Not Fascists?” in a new series on KPFK. For a detailed account of the ad and its behind-the-scenes politics, see http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1990-11-11/features/1990315149_1_willie-horton-fournier-michael-dukakis.)

It was only during the civil rights movement as transmitted on Pacifica Radio in the 1960s that I had ever heard a black intellectual, and I heard plenty. That led me to James Baldwin’s Another Country, from which I gleaned the lesson that women were so boring that it was understandable that any sensitive male might prefer the company of other men, even in bed.

My education in race and gender only began in the 1960s, and it shook my psyche to its foundations. In my own defense, I remember thinking about my own negative views of black people that perhaps I was a bigot, that were these not humans like myself, with only one life to live? Were we not all in the same boat? During the years at Pacifica radio, I began producing programs about the development of American culture, focusing on such matters as artistic freedom from censorship, and the ecology of artists and the institutions that interpreted their work. By now it was the 1970s, and middle-class blacks were organizing themselves (as were women) to demand more space in galleries and museums for black and women artists. I remember the story of one art world Waspy socialite on the museum board, overheard by a friend, complaining on a telephone call, “Now we are going to have to show all that crappy art.” I also remember the pugnacity and defensiveness of the current director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, referring to these black and female outcasts as “my people.” Because I had given them air time, I was now similarly a pariah in the world of the haute bourgeoisie. It was good for my character to be thrown out with the trash.

During that period of radio production, I remember the first demands by media reformers from minority communities that Pacifica and all other media outlets must dispense with “negative images” of their groups in order to provide “role models” of strength to the children, who presumably would remedy their self-esteem deficits. (This demand was in sync with prior rules in the movies that entertainment should neither be offensive to any group nor propagandistic.) Nobody was demanding an entirely reoriented education from early childhood on, with the exception of a few visionaries. Nothing has changed since then, except that the visionaries (see Eva Moskowitz’s chain of charter schools in Harlem) are proving their claims that urban minorities, properly educated in the basic skills of literacy, numeracy, science, and such, are indeed not mentally or morally deficient, as racist propaganda would have it; nor were their self-images to be confined to white America’s most potent racist and sexist images: the Willie Horton rapist/murderer/star athlete/rapper, the blackface minstrel entertainer with a populist message, the femme fatale (Medusa, Gorgon, the “despicable” hag/witch Marianne Gingrich, disposable ex-spouse out for revenge, hence lacking in credibility), or her antitype: Mammy a.k.a. “Nigger Jim” in Huckleberry Finn. Cross-dressing may be cool, but it does not rectify the condition of women.

I would love to believe that all the white supremacists, North, South, and West, had not only had a change of heart, but were, more importantly, rectifying their own education with studies of black history, women’s history, and especially labor history, for competition between black, brown and white workers is a crucial element in our politics, past and present. Just as the competition between women for the favor of protective and powerful men is the engine that keeps many women focused on sex and appearance above their abilities to function either as healthy individuals, or as effective parents, or as proper citizens in a republic; i.e. women (including minorities of either gender) who are not averse to the study of military history, economics, accounting, political maneuvering, and the deciphering of all forms of authoritarian propaganda.

I am aware that many Americans in all sections of the country are working to change inherited attitudes toward “race” and gender. This blog is mainly about a public complacency that I find intolerable. Complacency and a distressing turn toward social relations that are not only irrational, but sadomasochistic. See https://yankeedoodlesoc.wordpress.com/2012/01/21/huck-finn-and-the-well-whipped-child/.

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