YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

July 1, 2014

The Rightist Culture War Strategy Won’t Work

culture-war1It is not surprising that persons who make their living in publishing or writing on behalf of conservative or libertarian causes would envision “culture” as the battleground on which to halt the slide toward “fascism” or “totalitarianism” or “statism” or whatever you want to call the direction of the Democratic Party. The latest to enter the fray is publisher Adam Bellow, son of the illustrious Saul Bellow. http://www.nationalreview.com/article/381419/let-your-right-brain-run-free-adam-bellow. (For my one and only blog on Saul Bellow see https://clarespark.com/2011/11/12/the-woman-question-in-saul-bellows-herzog/.)

Leaving aside for the moment, whether there is a single, coherent right wing culture to spawn artists, let me ask some related questions: Do artists and filmmakers make revolutions in human relationships, or do material factors that are often avoided, put down, or erased by mystical science-hating organic conservatives? For these persons often view themselves as postmodernists or moderates or entirely alienated anarchists.

Think about the onset of modernity in the West for a moment. What factors enabled the elevated status of women? Novels and tracts by soi-disant feminists, or the Industrial Revolution that removed patriarchs from the home, hence raising the status of the women who were now, by default, more in charge of socializing children and supported by John Locke’s empiricist idea of the tabula rasa (i.e., by the outcome of experience and study on our judgments, as opposed to Plato’s innate ideas and shadows on caves)?

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As for the sexual revolution, how can we discount the effect of “the pill” that prevented unwanted pregnancies and enabled greater freedom in sexual pleasure for both partners? Or do we want movies that take us back to the good old days when women were entirely subservient to husbands and children, lived for the family alone, and endured endless pregnancies? (See Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse (1927): her portrait of “Mrs. Ramsay.”)

It is true that the mass media have had a great effect publicizing social movements, but close examination of their politics reveals a motion toward populism, not social transformation in human relationships that would lead to wider acceptance of free markets, the end of racism and sexism, and to an aversion to overregulation by the State. Populists are not leftists, but petit-bourgeois radicals angry at “elites” (perhaps stand-ins for authoritarian parents). Such resentment may be found in much of the conservative movement, currently in an uproar over “progressives” in disguise as “RINOS.”

No culture produces so many geniuses that we can simply call out brilliant artists and/or critics who can move mountains and change consciousness to the degree required by our current polarization and sense of injustice on both sides of the great divide.

But we can read good literature from many sources to our children, and we can teach them to extract the messages contained in specific texts. The same goes for music and art. That is what European and American “elites” did, and they ended up ruling the world, enhancing life for the billions, and continuing to ask the big, still unsolved questions. If we want to let “the right brain run free,” we have still to look for excellence in whatever genre or artist we can find. Forget political correctness on both left and right: Study how individual works of art work on us to get us thinking and moving again.

Will satire and spleen of the sort recommended by Adam Bellow and other culture warriors change hearts and minds on the liberal Left? Or will it be taken as yet more agitprop and bad faith emanating from reactionaries?

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February 2, 2013

“Totalitarianism,” polarization, and single-issue politics

Leninism-picturePolarization. Pundits and politicians today often complain about “polarization” as an obstacle to “compromise,” without acknowledging that there may be irreconcilable conflicts that cannot be mediated, no matter how skillful or flexible the warring parties. However, it is acknowledged that the two major political parties are at odds over the best way to achieve economic growth: Democrats  want Keynesian demand-stimulus and government spending, while conservative Republicans and libertarians want free markets and limited government as the road to prosperity, for it is the private sector that holds their attention, though some of their admired forbears advocated a government safety net (the Friedmans, Hayek). Perhaps we should calm down a bit: there are two capitalist parties, and no one is ideologically inclined to eliminate the other Party, at least not yet.

Single-issue politics. Social movements of the 1960s that piggy-backed off the civil rights movement  (antiwar, feminism, gay rights, animal rights, environmentalism, now Latino/Hispanic rights) are generally supported by liberals, but tend to dismay conservatives, who see such issues as feminism and gay rights as destructive to the family and even causes of cultural decline and coarsening): hence the “culture wars.” And no one is giving an inch, so that single-issue politics tend to polarize us even further, with each side in the various struggles accusing their opponents of authoritarianism, narrow-mindedness or even “totalitarian” tendencies.

Leftists would have to view single-issue politics as mostly disruptive and even a bourgeois distraction to the class struggle, which will, after the revolution, remove all obstacles to the development of the human personality under the new dispensation. Whereas I see these various movements as incommensurate, that is, they should be treated as separate entities with different histories and implications for how we manage the economy. They should not be jumbled together or even compared to the struggle of black Americans to achieve equality of opportunity.

Totalitarianism. I asked some of my Facebook friends to explain what they meant by “totalitarianism.” They agreed that it signified a kind of statism that would go beyond anything we have now in the West, eliminating all civil liberties, freedom of speech, etc. Nearly all read Orwell, and already feel the heat of Big Brother in some tendencies of the Obama administration, or even in the social movements mentioned above insofar as they impose PC or are alarmingly “secular.” Orwell was unenthused over “secularism” too: see https://clarespark.com/2015/01/22/orwells-wartime-essays-some-surprises/. Meanwhile, pundits of the Right and even the middle, tend to use “totalitarianism” in a manner that equates Soviet Communism and Nazi Germany as functional equivalents, which Orwell did not, hoping for an English “Socialism.” (Orwell did see Socialism as an ongoing theme in Nazi Germany, but he was mistaken. (See https://clarespark.com/2014/12/10/were-nazis-socialists/.) For other writers, the Holocaust is viewed as terrible, but a distraction from the millions of victims under the Soviet Union and Communist China.

In his conclusions to The Myth of the Nation and Vision of Revolution: Ideological Polarization in the Twentieth Century (UC Press, 1981, Transaction Press paperback ed., 1991) Jacob Talmon does not equate the terror states of Nazis and the Soviets, reducing each to a kind of ultra–statism, though both regimes had to resort to terror in order to discipline their constituencies. They had different historical trajectories as I have constantly argued here before. Nazis regressed to the brutalities of the archaic and to feudal social relations, while Reds believed they were emancipating the lower orders from the modern world as directed by the imperialist bourgeoisie. Reds would complete the unfulfilled bourgeois project, while Nazism was a counter-revolution. (Irving Louis Horowitz appropriates Talmon to paper over the polarities that Talmon emphasizes between Nazis and Soviets, in my view, because Horowitz is allied with such as Hannah Arendt. Page numbers below are from the Transaction Press version.)

Several years ago, I vehemently criticized Jonah Goldberg’s best seller Liberal Fascism as misleading and wrong-headed. (See  https://clarespark.com/2010/03/10/jonah-goldbergs-liberal-fascism-part-one/.) Since reading the Goldberg  book, one that was much admired on the Right, I have read Eric Hobsbawm’s  tetralogy on modernity that does find communism to be an outgrowth of the Enlightenment and of the bourgeois revolution that the French mounted in 1789, but certainly not Fascism or Nazism. (See https://clarespark.com/2012/11/23/historians-vs-pundits-the-eric-hobsbawm-synthesis/, https://clarespark.com/2013/01/15/golden-globes-lincoln-clinton-hobsbawm/, https://clarespark.com/2012/12/22/my-oppositional-defiant-disorder-and-eric-hobsbawm/, https://clarespark.com/2012/12/08/hobsbawm-obama-israel/) .

The redoubtable historian Jacob Talmon covered the same period as Eric Hobsbawm, but from a liberal anti-communist point of view. He faults both Leninism and the various fascisms for erasing the conception of humanity and the value of the individual, but would never agree with Jonah Goldberg that progressivism was a precursor to a kind of “liberal fascism”, i.e. to the excessive statism that alarms the Republican Party, libertarians, and some of the writers for National Review.

Jacob Talmon Stamps

Jonah Goldberg, a popular writer, was in over his head.

Here is an example of what Talmon means by “totalitarianism” in the drive toward Soviet bureaucratic centralism or “totalitarian democracy” : “Lenin experienced that sense of movement, of the eternal tug of war, of unbridgeable contradictions, of the approaching crisis, with an intensity and urgency unmatched by anyone in his circle….movement, contradiction, conflict, breakthrough, change were to him encased in an evolving totality held together by the iron-cast law of historical inevitability. The irresistible march of history could neither be affected nor could be allowed to be interfered with by human arbitrariness, caprice, preferences, feelings, sentiments, residual inhibitions.” (p.339) In Lenin’s historical imagination, the bourgeoisie (finance capital) was the oppressor standing in the way of the development of “personality.” A dictatorship of the proletariat” would destroy the bourgeoisie, thus going all the way to fulfilling the promise of Enlightenment and its liberation of thought.

For these authors, “totalitarianism” is less about total control, but rather a “breakthrough,” a “vision of revolution” that seeks to overturn the world as it exists in its totality. Totality is the essence of the world “totalitarian.”  Nazism overthrows the German Right and the Weimar social democrats, while celebrating neo-feudal social relations, with the Leader directing the organic racially purified “people’s community” (the integral Nation). By contrast, communism imagines an international working class proletarian brotherhood, who have abolished nationalism, imperialism, and capitalism. Without these evil “isms” all people would be able to develop a full individuality. But the fascisms deter anything smacking of the individual, glorifying instead the State/Party/as the embodiment of the people’s community. For Mussolini there was nothing outside the State, and the State would work its coercive magic on the sindicati (He had once been a revolutionary Syndicalist, influenced by George Sorel, and his masculinist cult of violence and war.)

(Hitler’s volkischness would be enlarged globally so that each state, under German leadership, would be its own racially pure polity, but his war aims were mostly directed to stopping the  Soviets and expanding into the Slavic areas that were bread  baskets; that would entail enslaving the inferior Slavs.)

Populism. But everyone, Populist-Progressives, anarchists, George Sorel, and all the anticapitalists in Europe, including Nazis and Leninists alike, hated the rule of money, going so far as to stigmatize “economic determinism” as a Jewish imposition. For  Lenin. insofar as he was influenced by J. A.  Hobson,  finance capital was seen as a Jewish plot to take over the world (see https://clarespark.com/2009/09/18/bad-sex-in-the-new-york-times/, and Talmon pp. 204, 439, 473-74 and passim); for Hitler, “Jewish Bolshevism” was a front for finance capital (also “Jewish”) and worse, the Jews were the “anti-race,” for they valued, from antiquity onward, humanity as one species: Talmon insists on this.

We should get our history straightened out, recognizing the stunted political imagination that the careless use of political language imposes. Now that defiled brain is a species of terror. And it feels “totalitarian” to me.

January 21, 2010

Citizenship and emotional maturity

Clare Spark, June 1993

My daughter Shulamit Chocron, née Jennifer Loeb, took this picture of me and my inner (Carmen? flower child?) self the day of the hooding ceremony at UCLA for the Ph.D. I look extremely pleased with myself, for my graduate work in U.S. History had brought me into conflict with numerous members of the Department of History, not to speak of visitors from other campuses or UCLA departments with orientations to science, history, and the Enlightenment that clashed with mine. Moreover, it took me eleven years of study, research, and writing to pass my exams, and then to satisfy my reading committee. So why was I elated? For one thing, I had escaped from a hopeless fight with Pacifica Radio (the “listener-sponsored” “alternative” radio network that was the model for and precursor to National Public Radio). For another, throughout frequent heated disputes with faculty, I never lost my cool, though I sometimes teared up on the way home. And I could appreciate the positive contributions to my education of even my most ardent antagonists: they all had something of value to teach me.  I do admire self-control in myself and in others, which brings me to the subjects of this blog: 1. hating one’s political or intellectual opponents, or, alternatively, worshipping certain authority figures who offer visions of protection, solidarity and “community,”  while simultaneously offering persons or groups or belief systems as objects of hatred; and 2. using conflict productively, testing the validity and usefulness of one’s world view and opinions, while learning how others think and feel about the most vital subjects.

1. Citizenship in a diverse society. As I have said before here, citizenship in a democratic republic places unprecedented demands on its electorate. Those demands are both intellectual and emotional. Citizens cannot allow media pundits and politicians or other would-be mind-managers to pull them back to the unmodulated, unsublimated emotions of childhood and adolescence, e.g., adoration, hatred, or defiance.  Unfortunately, the history of the United States has numerous unsettled conflicts–between sections and ethnic groups, for instance. All the leftover fights that have been around for six centuries in the transition from tribalism or feudalism to a would-be free market society remain in play. Moreover, our country remains polarized over the role of the state in a globalizing world. The bad thing about polarization is that it breeds unthinking rejection of whatever the opposition proposes as legislation or cultural practice. What to do? We should be demanding not just more open, clean government at the local, state, and federal levels, but a detailed exposition of the policies that will rule our lives for the near future. This is a job for parents, the schools, and all the media at our disposal. 

   2. If we don’t engage the arguments of our opponents, we can’t tell if we are doing the right thing. Forget the buzz words such as “moderation,” “bipartisanship,” or “balance.” These are vague abstractions that take us away from the concrete policy that we must analyze: is it class legislation? what are its economic consequences? how do we differentiate between reconcilable and irreconcilable conflicts?, and so on.

     To combine these two points, I finish this little meditation with a proviso: learning cannot take place in an environment that is felt to be dangerous. Without safety and an adherence to rules of engagement, there can be no rational dialogue or imaginative leaps into proposals for improved, reformed institutions and policies.  We are a long way from national agreement on anything I have written here, but we had a start with our Constitution and the amendments that corrected its flaws. We should love the search for truth, love the courage that leaps into the darkness to discover new things, and above all have patience with ourselves and those who make us angry.

September 14, 2009

Historians, journalists and polarization

Jean-Jaques Rousseau

I suppose you could call this blog a kind of discourse on method, with apologies to Descartes.

The term “polarization” does not mean that a group (in this case the U.S.) simply has sharp disagreements over policy. Rather it describes a situation that is highly irrational, in which hatred of the opposition is the dominant emotion. In such heightened emotional states, it is pointless to ask that we step back and 1. Describe with accuracy the status quo that the policy aims to reform; 2. Analyze proposed policies in detail, asking whether the reform in question can achieve the stated goals of its proponents; 3. Imagine better alternatives, describing these in sufficient detail to elicit either assent or opposition from concerned voters.

That sounds reasonable, right? But it is impossible to get agreement over the basic facts, or to even want to know them, in a society that is moved by partisan propaganda, often vitriolic, and where key words mean different things to different individuals and groups. (Take the word “secular” for instance. More on that later.)

Note that I did not specify what polarizing policy I had in mind. These (rational) protocols listed above could be applied to any of the current debates that roil the country: health care (or health insurance) reform; the war in Afghanistan; U.S. relations with Israel; whether or not radical Islam poses a deadly threat to the security of the West; the chief cause of the recession and measures that would aid recovery. (The latter dispute could include the causes of the Great Depression and how we got out of it.); gay marriage and compliance with the SCOTUS  decision; and immigration reform, etc.

During the month of August and early September I blogged here almost every day, hoping that an historical perspective that was also informed by depth psychology might contribute to the return of curiosity and rationality in a public sphere that seems to me to be spinning out of control toward either violent confrontations, even race riots, or toward the instituting of dangerous, misconceived policies that could hurt people with even greater inhumanity. In particular, I have emphasized embedded antisemitism in popular culture, an ever more visible phobia that defeats the rational scrutiny of controversial subjects as listed above. Not every historian does this kind of analysis, and why this is so is in itself historically determined.

First, there is the chasm between 1. Those whose intellectual and emotional makeup leads them toward skepticism to all authority until that authority is able to justify its existence and power to affect individual life; and 2. Those who are driven by faith in leaders, and who generally submit to their will, without too many questions. Let me stipulate here that historians are, by training, supposed to line up with the first group, whether their emphasis is on institutional structures, cultural patterns, the decisions of leaders, or the imperatives of the natural world and its slow or rapid transformations. Preferably, historians should provide an explanatory synthesis that comprehends, however tentatively, all of these great forces for change or stasis, but few have the training, the imagination, and the nerve to attempt it. Could it be that some do not want to appear as ”Jewish” troublemakers and catalysts of social change?

Unfortunately, given the immensity of the task facing the historian who wants to explain any conflict of significance, it is rare to find one with the imaginative skills and time to develop a satisfactory theory on all but a limited terrain. That is why I wish historians would shake off their graduate school training and its approved “lines” of interpretation coming from senior faculty, and move toward greater intellectual independence. “Faith” in our dissertation directors or other mentors must give way to bold forays into uncharted waters, where we identify those areas and conceptions most helpful in depolarizing the conflicts that rule the day.* One challenge is deciding the level of detail and context needed by a broad public in assessing foreign and  domestic policy. (I tried to do that yesterday in my account of oil politics and Obama’s framing of the Arab-Israeli conflict: I drastically reframed the conflict as generally transmitted in schools and in the media.) Another area of activity would be to define key words as they are deployed by competing social movements, for instance “secular” forces as opposed to “traditional” ones.

The word “secular” has changed its meaning: no longer commonly understood as a reference to the separation of church and state, i.e., a plurality of institutions affecting our orientation to public policy, hence enhancing “choice,”  “secular” now is often a curse word for some opinion leaders on the Right who take it to mean the mindless destruction of American values, as these are embodied in the beliefs of the Founding Fathers and the Constitution. Whereas, instead of using scary words implying parricide and patricide, they could be doing real, appropriately detailed investigations, assuming that they are allowed to by their colleagues and employers. Or how about historians decoding the omnipresent admonition to “take responsibility” for one’s health? How can there be meaningful choice when determining structures remain invisible, and where we have only limited understanding of the emotions within ourselves that muddle “rational choice?”

One more word about journalists who are not trained historians, but who work for the media, and for whom loyalty to the organization often trumps loyalty to seeking the truth and educating the public about events and their causes. Newspapers and other media are in my view, adding to the polarization owing to the political postures of the owners and their advertised intentions to act as the “newspaper of record” or to achieve “fairness and balance.” Of course, the New York Times and Fox (owned by Newscorp) provide neither a complete record, nor fairness and balance, for few even know what “balance” signifies (as I have argued in a previous blog); nor is it widely known that “balance,” like “equilibrium” is a word used in psychological warfare to soothe the target audience. That is why the failure of the Pacifica Foundation remains such a bitter disappointment in my own personal history, for I once thought that listener-sponsorship would remedy the structural causes of bias and finally bring about a vibrant marketplace of ideas, but I did not take into consideration the overwhelming influence of corporatist liberalism and its concealed collectivist (“multicultural”) outlook, a matter discussed on this website at length.

Will the internet provide the much-needed way out of this imbroglio, a tangle of clashing opinion pushing us into some form of madness? As long as our schools and families do not prepare children to “quarrel with God” as Herman Melville did throughout his literary career (and for this he was read as a “Jew” by some prominent critics), the internet will add to the noise, but will not help us distinguish between true and false claims as to the crucial facts that affect public policy-making in a democratic republic: a democracy that does not call the primitivist Rousseau its intellectual parent, but is the creature of  Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century.

[Added 1-9-11:] I did not mention demonizing as a habit of the media, along with demonic possession as an explanation for psychosis or sociopathy. If your core readers believe in the Devil or in innate evil in human nature, calling out the dark forces is another strategy for selling newspapers and increasing traffic on cable television and websites. Goethe (illustrated) made a dramatic intervention in the Faust legend when he wrote his two-part drama in which Faust does not sell his soul, but makes a bet with Mephistopheles, a point that is ignored by those who don’t study intellectual history. But the Romantic Goethe, like Schiller, did become more conservative after the French Revolution, and it shows in their dramas.]

*One such historian is Niall Ferguson, whose masterful synthesis explaining Western ascendancy is of intense interest to me.

Tischbein portrait of classicist Goethe

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