The Clare Spark Blog

November 7, 2015

The “change of heart” explanation

This blog addresses the most effective theme in American popular culture: religiously based sentimentality. For a related blog noting the meme of “one Nation” see

What follows is the liner notes “About the culture” that I wrote for the Yankee Doodle Society’s first recording, “Sentimental Songs of the Mid-19th Century” (Takoma Records A-1048, 1976; songs by composers Stephen Foster, Henry Clay Work and George Root).

[Liner notes:] The music of this recording is the sheet music of the mid-century parlor, songs performed by the genteel family at leisure. The self-improving impulses of these log-cabin graduates found satisfaction in decorous language freed from frontier crudity, boisterousness, and sexual innuendo. Gathered around the piano, the entire family could join in the harmonized chorus, affirming the values and sentiments suited to their new station, and experiencing the reassuring world invoked by the sentimentalists.

For the American Eden had been shaken by the tremors of industrialization. The system of laissez nous faire or unfettered economic competition in an open marketplace had promised both personal freedom and social harmony. Instead, the 19th century witnessed the growth of an alarming gap between rich and poor, with terrifying social strife: depressions, panics, riots, class, race and sex antagonisms. The Puritan’s “heavenly kingdom on earth” had frequently turned out to be “hell with the lid off” — as Dickens described Stephen Foster’s Pittsburgh.

Rather than scrap the entire economic kit and caboodle, as various utopians were urging, middle class Americans tinkered and fussed, relegating hopes and memories of personal happiness to a sacrosanct Home Sweet Home, nestled in benevolent, maternal Nature.


Protected from the unpleasantness of business, the genteel woman guarded the hearth: priestess to the cult of domesticity.  From her privileged position as the national repository of moral purity, she led the crusade to clean up society, the untiring foe to alcohol and prostitution: home wreckers in whatever guise.

Social evil, all of it, was viewed by the reform-minded gentility as the product of individual corrupt hearts, a coronary lapse in social empathy. Clogged by the polluting passions, the offending heart required purging through exposure to the Noble and the Pathetic, with tears and sighs conferring absolution upon the wayward self.

What constituted the Noble and the Pathetic, the preponderating subjects of sentimental song? They were teen-aged soldiers defending the Flag, “happy darkies” and steadfast maidens contented in service to their masters: doomed draftees and perfect angels consigned to the shadows of public life. Those who were about to die, or who had barely lived, were saluted by the millions…whose own capacities for action were increasingly crippled as wealth and power were concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.

The sentimental song, like the chaste ministrations of genteel mothers and sisters, served to reconcile ordinary Americans to loneliness and social impotence. Dreaming of curatives, their condition was eased with the catharsis of a good cry, and the glimmer of Union provided by a well-made song in the fellowship of performance. [End, liner notes by CS, emphasis and quotation marks added]


April 3, 2015

“The Slap” and pop culture during Easter Week

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marilynThe explosion of popular culture as a business in the early 20th century brought forth a specialized type of reporter and pseudo-critic. They didn’t have to know much about history, psychology, ideology, or institutions, as long as they were hip to sales, ads, ratings, and such like—whatever the studios put out for mass delectation.

Forget the fact that popular culture was usually blamed (wrongly) by leading intellectuals for the rise of dictators and fascism, with America often named as chief villain in exporting the craze for “materialism” and “consumerism” that not only thwarted the class struggle, but was the chief culprit in the great dumbing down, now deplored by the cognoscenti, but rarely if ever identified as populist in the most Romantic and defiant way possible.

For what was wanted (and still is), is the goods-buying 18-49 demographic, the generation that marries, sleeps around, procreates, and buys stuff—or makes revolutions. This demographic inhabits all positions on the social spectrum, so appeals are usually made to a variety of ideologies. Enter the social movements of the 1960s with their initial demands for integration and acceptance swerving into quotas, diversity, inter-racial sex (“take that, you Republican racists!”), and separatist strategies that plausibly left us with the same shallow, unmotivated characters, but with the same emphasis on likeability, melodrama (suspense, heroes, villains, and victims), family solidarity, and “positive images” that usually populated the dime novels, vaudeville, burlesque, and popular drama from which they originated.

Enter “The Slap,” a NBC television miniseries that mimics most of a best-selling, award-winning Australian novel by Christos Tsiolkas (b.1965, What attracted to me to the series was the apparent deviation from the NBC left-liberal line. For once, I thought initially, liberals, counter-culture types, and conservatives confronted one another, without excessive caricature of the conservative position. Moreover, instead of the usual alternatively noble or racist working class characters, we got a peep into the interactions of arty professionals, none of whom is without flaws or was particularly PC.

Rosie and Hugo

Rosie and Hugo

Indeed, in the novel, “Anouk” (played by Uma Thurman) has an abortion, but in the television series, though abandoned by her much younger actor boy-friend, she brings the baby to term, and in the last scene, the no-boundaries very young villain (roughly 8 year old Hugo, he who gets slapped on the cheek by a businessman for threatening “Harry’s” son, perhaps with a baseball bat), holds Anouk’s new baby boy with affection and care. The “dysfunctional family” has been reunited and no one is beyond redemption when presented with an innocent male infant. Was it an accident that the series was scheduled to end the night before Good Friday?

And so, being moderate, and the home network for the principled Law and Order series, the suspenseful NBC plot is resolved with a compromise: Harry the auto dealer and abusive slapper is found guilty of hitting a child not his own, but the hippie, arty, parents are also slapped on the wrist by the very annoyed female judge with a promise of state intervention if they do not cease indulging their son, the out-of-control Hugo (still being nursed by his wine-drinking, hysterical mother though he is anywhere from four to seven or eight years old, depending on whether you are reading the novel or watching episodes in either Australian or American tv series).

But the most compelling feature of the series finale was the episode devoted to “Ritchie” (played by Lucas Hedges), a gay victim of heterosexual gang style bullying, who has hidden his suicidal, institutionalized past, fleeing with a bossy MOM to Brooklyn, for the author of the novel The Slap is also publicly gay. The uber-talented promising artist-photographer Ritchie, faced with testifying in court and humiliated by having his past dredged up by the press thanks to the shyster lawyer representing Harry, tries once again to kill himself with pills and booze next to a carousel he has been turning into strange “bleak” images, but two or three of the (now somewhat repentant) friends track him down and the artist Gary rescues him, just in time for Ritchie to testify at the trial’s climax. Ritchie loves or admires (or doesn’t admire) all the people at the original party (the scene of the “crime” where he was a stranger!), hence he says he deleted the damning photos of Hugo being slapped, because he knows what it is like to be exposed. He remembers precisely what happened at the party, enabling the compromise ending, and affirming that the one gay character might be associated with Jesus—he is that all-embracing, and early on is described by Gary as “innocent.” Although Ritchie clearly disapproves of Harry’s slap, he slips in this phrase, “these people I love” and reiterates an ongoing theme–odd for an artist who distorts reality: Ritchie: “the truth is all we have.”

These are the sentiments of a revolutionary Romantic (not a postmodernist), perhaps reflecting upon his own unresolved relations with MOM.

November 8, 2012

The Magical power of “Negroes” and other Beautiful People

Viola Davis as magical

One Facebook friend reports polls concluding that Romney voters focused on the economy, while Obama voters responded to his “caring” persona. This is valuable intel, for it reminds us of the Magical Negro archetype described here: As Wiki tells it, this archetype is a throwback to the “noble savage” who emerges in the European age of expansion.

(This one of those “back to basics” blogs, basic tactics for political support that are cross-cultural and universal in their efficacy.)

But more, we should reflect upon the power of the Beautiful People, and the mass appeal they exercise. Why? Is it simply that “beauty” is a supremely rare quality that mesmerizes us in all times and places? Or is it something more primal, which returns us back to the emotions of early childhood and our dependency on mothers and fathers for care and protection?  After all, Mitt Romney projected a “caring” persona, as Anne Romney emphasized in her RNC account of their marriage, noting her husband’s constant attentions to needy neighbors and even strangers. But all the demonstrated compassion in the world is not enough to compensate for the image constructed by Democrats that Romney was the (uncaring) tool of Wall Street and the Big Money.

In prior blogs, I have written much about populism and its embedded antisemitism, how many ideologues continue to blame Hollywood “Jews” for corrupting the masses and either converting them to the Democratic Party and to the Left in general, or conversely, fastening the “mass” psyche to the material goodies promised by capitalist economies. Both claims are nonsensical, for such “Jewish” titans as Laemmle, Mayer, Goldwyn, or the Warner brothers adapted themselves to immigrant tastes and prejudices. The history of the Hollywood film is replete with bloodsucking bankers and other capitalist villains, valiantly opposed by the muscular Common Man. (For the femme fatale as a repudiation of the idea of progress, see, retitled “Film Noir, decoded.”)

All tyrants use visual images (including architecture) to consolidate support and to divert mass rage away from themselves; pictures are deployed to evoke parental imagos.  The tyrant’s friends are beautiful—as lovely as the nursing Mother to her clamorous infant, or as her glittering earrings are to her toddler who pulls on them, while enemies are as repulsive as the angry father wielding a cane or whip (think of the omnipresent Big Brother) or old crones—women who no longer expect to please men, and who have nothing to lose by stirring the pot.

Female Chartist

And so, fed by a diet of idealized/demonized images, we continue the process that psychoanalysts describe as “splitting.” Our love objects, whether politician or other celebrity, can switch with alarming frequency from ministering angel to terrifying demon. Don’t look to popular culture for “integration, “ i.e., a less distorted view of The Loved/Hated One.

June 15, 2010

The Classics as antidote to science education?

Max Beckmann, Odysseus and Calypso, 1943

   In the late 1930s, two books were published that traced the trajectory of European civilization, and found that The Greek Way (as classicist Edith Hamilton titled her book of 1930*) was clearly protofascist. One was by social psychologist Ellis Freeman: Conquering the Man in the Street: A psychological analysis of propaganda in war, fascism, and politics  (N.Y.:  Vanguard Press, 1940), the earlier by future Labour M.P. Richard Crossman:  Plato Today (N.Y.: Oxford UP, 1939). Both are available on and I highly recommend them, for social democratic journalists (Stanley Fish and J. M. Bernstein), blogging this week in the New York Times, are calling for renewed attention to a classical education as a remedy to a narrow science/technology education that is allegedly suppressing critical thought.  (In one case, the philosopher  J.M. Bernstein, compares the Tea Party to Jacobin terrorists, rage-driven and standing for a mythical autonomous individual.  But that critic of the organic society, Ellis Freeman,  would have been outraged by such a comparison, for the test of democracy was the structure of groups: would or would not the “leader” accept criticism from individuals in the group? If not, it was fascist or protofascist. Think now of the structure of classrooms in the humanities, dominated as they are now by left-liberals and hardcore Leninists. Or the fear that some Democratic congressmen have of Town Hall meetings.)

In other words, proto-Nazis (the Tea Party) would be cured with a dose of Hegel and other German Idealists who looked to measured, balanced, communitarian ancient Greeks for their models. Having just read the Robert Fitzgerald translation of Homer’s The Odyssey, I find the idea that Homer’s epics are useful to us today as any kind of social or political model quite terrifying, especially with respect to the critical practices that make a democracy viable. But as a source for comic books and blood and gore movies and television, the adventures of Odysseus are a treasure trove. Think of the good king, the paternalistic welfare state, the touching loyalty of its servants, fatalism, magic, the intervention of wise god figures in daily life (grey-eyed Athena or a wise Latina), superheroes, shape-changing creatures, gorgeous tall women and men, the glitter of gold and silver along with artisanal triumphs designed for the aristocracy, the increasing blending of gymnastics with dance, but most of all, the aestheticization of violence that Walter Benjamin described as the culture of fascism and Nazism in his famous defense of modern mass media “The Work of Art in the Era of Mechanical Reproduction.”  Writing at the same time as Freeman and Crossman, Benjamin declared that such artists as Marinetti had glorified war to the point where humanity was contemplating its own destruction as an aesthetic experience. What would Benjamin have said about the humanizing beauty of Odysseus’s slaughter of the suitors and the female slaves who had slept with them?– A slaughter that left the poet in awe of the “lion” figure of Odysseus, covered as he was with the blood and gore of his enemies.

As the late mathematician and author Norman J. Levitt understood very well, the scientific revolution created a rupture in the trajectory of the West that had the potential to change the course of Western civilization.**  It is through science-induced skepticism that we learn to stand alone, if necessary, in confrontation with the mind-management of the past, or with power-hungry and corrupt leaders of the present. It is through the ingenuity of individual, Promethean free-thinking humans that we will conquer hostile nature without destroying life on the planet. As for the Greek way (explicitly Keynesian in the view of Robert M. Hutchins), look to its legacy in the streets of Athens.

*I did not mean to imply that either Freeman or Crossman criticized Hamilton, nor do I forget that Plato banished poets from his Republic. I have now read her book, and it fits in with the ongoing portrait I have painted of the Progressives: their claim to balance the claims of individuality and community through their embrace of “the Third Way,” the aspiration to aristocracy, the glorification of heroes, their organicism. But she adds a grim touch in her adulation of tragic heroes, whose fates bring us intense pleasure, not pain. S-M anyone? (For a related blog, see

**My friend Norman Levitt was a democratic socialist, and might have been transposing his desire for a rupture between capitalism and what he thought would be a better society back into the seventeenth century.

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