The Clare Spark Blog

February 28, 2016

“The dangers of apathy”

From the Sam L Slick collection of South American posters

From the Sam L Slick collection of South American posters

I am reading an eye-opening book on US political history by two Cornell professors that is literally blowing my mind.

Glenn C. Altschuler and Stuart M. Blumin’s Rude Republic: Americans and their politics in the 19th Century (Princeton UP, 2000) seriously contradicts what I had been taught in graduate school. According to my dissertation adviser, Alexander Saxton in his course on American mass media, American political culture drastically changed from an 18th C. “politics of deference” to a 19th C. “mass politics” (the latter implying either proto-fascism or communism?)

On the contrary, the Cornellians argue that 1. The Constitution was an aristocratic document that discouraged democratic participation; and 2. The politics of deference persisted more than had been documented until the Civil War direct involvement of the American populace in matters of life and death and preservation of the Union; and even after the tumultuous period following the Civil War, most Americans remained detached from politics (preferring respectability and separation from dirty, increasingly urbanized machine politics), a condition that they hint persists today, implying that it was a struggle against apathy to gain support for the New Deal, the New Frontier, and the Great Society.

I have looked for reviews, but the tiny number I found distorted their arguments. None mentioned their opening salvo that the Constitution was “aristocratic,” discouraging political participation; and all suggested that mass political involvement was intense (perhaps focusing on the Civil War).

I haven’t finished the book yet, but so far it explains a lot; e.g. conservatives produced a Midwestern radio series “The Dangers of Apathy” that I used to play on Pacifica to make fun of the Right (I regret this now); Watters’ World on Fox’s The Factor displays the ignorance of young people regarding knowledge of US leaders and their issues; both political parties appeal to “family”: the social democratic Left tries to extend “the family” (the preoccupation of most Americans) so that it encompasses Big Government solutions to “income inequality,” while the conservative Right seeks to recover the patriarchal family to solve the problems of education and crime in minority neighborhoods; while all factions seek to unify Americans to defeat polarization in One Big [Familial] Union. (See

(update 3-2-2016: I have finished  the book and found some sentences  worth quoting, as they emphasize the revisionist character of their research “Political historians of the nineteenth century have augmented their tabulations of voter turnout with other evidence of popular political participation, especially in the party-directed campaigns that preceded presidential elections. What they have been less attentive to is the evidence of qualified participation and of outright rejection. They have, for the most part, heard the cheers but not the sneers, and have taken very little note of silence…Large numbers, we believe, embraced the institutions and rituals of self-rule hesitantly, limiting their political engagement to brief periods, distancing themselves from the wire pullers and office seekers who ran the parties to their own advantage, and resisting the intrustion of politics into the more sacred precincts of family, church, and community…Political engagement–increasingly partisan engagement–was for some a serious business, for others an amusement or temporary diversion, and for still others an intrusion. (p.270)”

In 2016, the tide seems to have turned.

Women's March on Duma, February Revolution 1917

Women’s March on Duma, February Revolution 1917

June 15, 2013

Decoding Les Miserables and the superhero

les_miserables_ver11One of the first distinctions taught me by Alexander Saxton, my adviser at UCLA (and confirmed by other scholars) was that a drastic transformation had taken place between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the wake of the American and French Revolutions: that the politics of family and deference to one’s “betters” had given way to “mass politics,” symbolized most famously by the log cabin campaigns of Andrew Jackson and his successors in the Jeffersonian agrarian tradition. Federalists (like Washington and Hamilton) were out and democrats were in, even if they held slaves and adored Sir Walter Scott’s romances.

This point is lost on those who blame mass politics and mass culture (both supposedly appealing to the irrational mob) for all the dictatorships of the 20th century. Among these was George Orwell, whose Nineteen Eighty Four is unintelligible without taking into account the new technology that enabled the successful snooping of Big Brother. Similarly, the Frankfurt School critical theorists blame technology and bureaucratic rationality (i.e., modernity as controlled by irreligious mass culture) for the Holocaust.

Nor without “traditional” fear of the undeferential masses can we understand the turn toward the classic tradition advanced by Robert Maynard Hutchins and his ‘moderate’ colleagues, who, as early as 1939, hoped to reinstate deference to a natural aristocracy to defeat the atheistic reds, as well as the latter’s despised campaigns against racism and antisemitism,  and their glorification of the common man. Today these [red or pink] villains are called “secular progressives”–perhaps a code word for “the Jews.”  (See

I have spent the last several weeks plowing through Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (1862), a melodrama so appealing that it was adapted for both stage and film. What I most strongly take away from this monstrosity of a tale/sermon/philosophical treatise/military history is Hugo’s attempt to make himself, the reactionary Romantic, the true superhero of the tome. It is he who kills off his rival in fatherly strength and determination, Jean Valjean at the end, leaving himself, the author, as the major survivor. On display throughout are Hugo’s ostentatious learning, deference to God as the prime mover of human events, the efficacy of a change of heart in redeeming criminals, ingenious plotting, and detailed descriptions of the Paris poor, their furniture, rags, songs, and schemes including early nineteenth century French insurrections/émeutes. The epic novel is a reproach to Prometheus and his Enlightenment offspring, though many of its images are poetic and memorable. [For more on Hugo and the Prometheans see]

"Victor Hugo en mage"

“Victor Hugo en mage”

Hugo, no less than Jean Valjean threading his way through the treacherous Paris sewers with the wounded lawyer Marius on his back, is navigating his way between monarchism and republicanism, taking us back to the Middle Ages when the Catholic Church advanced the higher law that invariably trumped earthly “pettifoggers.”  Amor Vincit Omnia. Ask Robert Maynard Hutchins and the other pseudo-moderate men.

British production

British production

It is so ironic that during last year’s Tony Awards (referring to 2011 productions), members of the Broadway musical adaptation of Hugo’s novel, presented themselves as revolutionaries and republicans singing “One Day More” (  as if the author, without ambivalence,  favored republican principles and the mass politics that enabled them in Europe and America.  Hugo was no Marat, no ami du peuple. Rather, the escape artist (like both Valjean and Thenardier) was torn between his parents whose politics were opposed to one another. Hugo chose absolutism, not the stern Hebraic demand to choose inside a dualistic world.*

But don’t tell that to the post 1960s back-to-nature generation, like Victor Hugo, those stalwart enemies to “jewified” modernity, held to be masked, ambiguous, and unintelligible (with the exception of geniuses like himself). For many, Les Misérables is the Communist Manifesto of social democracy, but with a variation. It appears that God and the State have merged. The State, assuming the status of a deity, is the author of human events. The Good King is back, and the Good King is a superhero. (For a related recent blog see

*I am indebted to Steve Chocron for this point about Judaism and the necessity constantly to choose the right path when all choices are fraught with ambiguity.

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