The Clare Spark Blog

January 23, 2015

What is an organic conservative?

Gene  Wilder as young Frankenstein

Gene Wilder as young Frankenstein

I congratulated a well-known moderately conservative (?)journalist for bringing up “multiculturalism” as an obstacle to defeating jihadism. His response shocked me, for he declared that he was defending a “common culture” against the divisiveness of “multiculturalism.” Some organic conservatives (including “liberals”) will agree with admirers of Edmund Burke (in his Tory response to the French Revolution) and to Russell Kirk. For who does not long for “order” and a route to uniting divided families, polarized political parties, and the fragments of our memories and consciousness? The longed for “union” is glamorous, even glitzy.

Such responses, however, alarm me, for I had taken it for granted that this conservative journalist would prefer intellectual and religious pluralism/diversity to the implicit racialism that underlies the term “multiculturalism.” I don’t know if he sees the racialist underpinnings of the now hegemonic pseudo-solution to racism, one that was advanced by [covertly racist/German nationalist] German Romantics in the late 18th century to stave off the “mechanical materialism” they saw looming in the French Enlightenment. The French pox was an epistemology that led inexorably to worship of the Goddess of Reason that noted academics condemn today, irrationalist social democrats that they are, despising Jacobinism and its guillotine, you know, the guillotine that to the Gothic mentality resembles a printing press. (I am not nostalgic for Jacobins, but rather favor Condorcet, the Girondist, who was hounded to death by Jacobins.)

German printing press, 1811

German printing press, 1811

But America already has a common culture, and we didn’t need Edmund Burke to invent it, nor the Frankenstein monster to scare us half to death. That common culture is embodied in the social contract that separates church and state, and that guarantees the freedoms in the First and subsequent Amendments to the Constitution, not to speak of the property rights that enable economic growth and equal opportunity. Indeed, the very structure of the American Constitution, with its checks and balances, its separation of powers, enables us to agree to disagree. For conflict is normal and productive, unlike the dogma of “tradition” (unless that tradition favors literacy, numeracy, skepticism and close reading of texts). (Perhaps that is what the conservative journalist meant by a “common culture.” I sent him this blog and he agrees with me: his notion of a common culture is “secular and civic” and he firmly stands behind the First Amendment.)

Standing apart from these vanguard institutions are the dragons devised to scare us by less attractive conservatives like Mary Shelley, the author of the timeless Gothic thriller, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. Her message, typical of all reactionaries, is reiterated in the popular Showtime series Penny Dreadful, where Victor Frankenstein is an actual character intended to remind us that the evil within us is too powerful to achieve the goals of the American and French Revolutions with respect to human rights. (See https://clarespark.com/2014/06/25/penny-dreadfuls-sinister-significance/.)

Frontispiece to 1831 edition of Frankenstein

Frontispiece to 1831 edition of Frankenstein

It is not only far-Right conservatives who prefer the Terror-Gothic style of social organization, wherein mystical bonds are the source of social cohesion, not the rule of law and individual human rights, including property rights. Social democrats and even revolutionary socialists are just as eager to resuscitate Edmund Burke when it suits them. (On Edmund Burke’s frantic response to the French Revolution, inverting freedom and obedience, see https://clarespark.com/2011/09/17/edmund-burkes-tantrum/.)

Consider the abandonment of class or gender interest as an analytic category by today’s academic leftists. Gone with the wind are the days when revolutionary socialists forbade any social analysis that ignored “class struggle.” We are all multiculturalists now, Trotskyists and Stalinists alike. (See https://clarespark.com/2011/03/26/race-class-and-gender/. Underneath that shift to social democratic tactics is organicism brought about by the worship of the administrative state, the one that brought us permanent divisiveness and opened the gates to barbarian hordes.

All we fallen angels have to look forward to is the apocalypse. Goodbye Areopagitica; goodbye Paradise Lost. When I was a small child, I made a crayon drawing of a “happy harem girl” lacking sharp elbows. Perhaps I was more clairvoyant than Clare Spark.

Amazon ad for Frankenstein

Amazon ad for Frankenstein

April 29, 2012

Fred Siegel’s melodrama of 20th C. cultural history

Fred Siegel of Manhattan Institute

The April 2012 issue of Commentary features an article by Fred Siegel, http://www.commentarymagazine.com/article/how-highbrows-killed-culture/#.T5mYHo0AEuZ.facebook. (See his mini-bio here: http://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/siegel.htm). The essay is illustrated with a picture of Sir Lawrence Olivier as the diabolical King Richard III.* Originally a lecture delivered to the American Enterprise Institute, the essay has been featured on Facebook, and is highly recommended by John Podhoretz and Richard Miniter.

The chief villains in Siegel’s piece are a motley crew of intellectuals who ostensibly spurned “mass culture” and “mass man”: Nietzsche, the Frankfurt School critical theorists (he mentions Adorno, Horkheimer, and Marcuse), Ortega y Gasset, Dwight MacDonald, Aldous Huxley, H. L. Mencken, the disillusioned authors of the 1920s (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Waldo Frank, Sherwood Anderson). Siegel’s positive models are few, but include Robert M. Hutchins, T.S. Eliot, and apparently himself, as one who would rescue “middlebrow” taste and  “American” culture from its hatchet men. Presumably this rectified “mass culture” is the best defense against leftist and liberal statism and elitism. (Using the word “rectified” was a Marcel Duchamp joke, readers.)

Siegel, seizing the populist moment, perhaps, wants to rehabilitate the middle class and its cultural preferences away from European-friendly snobs, Western Marxists (i.e., the Frankfurters), Trotskyists, and New Leftists too. How he manages to upgrade organic conservatives such as Hutchins and Eliot to his camp is a mystery, for Hutchins was a leader in the semi-public move toward elite rule, relying for instance on Plato, no friend to the masses. (See https://clarespark.com/2010/06/19/committee-for-economic-development-and-its-sociologists/, https://clarespark.com/2010/06/15/the-classics-as-antidote-to-science-education/ .  Hutchins and his cohort of “moderate men” were frank and public manipulators of the masses Siegel says he wants to protect, while Eliot abhorred “free thinking Jews” (1933) as well as the decadence they brought to the modern world, e.g. “damp souls of housemaids” in his “Morning at the Window” (1920).

I have been thinking how to transmit my horror upon reading this type of “cultural” history. There have been other such essays and books purporting to give the reader a cultural or intellectual history of the 20th century, similarly detached from politics, economics, social movements, divergent ideological/class tendencies, and the ongoing controversies over the causes of wars and mass death. For these “culturalist” authors, “ideas” or “philosophy” are the very engines of history, and anyone who protests such a narrow view is ipso facto a “historical materialist,” i.e., a communist or fellow traveler: I am not one of this dragon crew.

There is simply no way to describe “culture” in a vacuum. It is the same problem that I have found in other culture war manifestoes. The organic conservatives (like the apparently “moderate” Siegel) ignore all of history since the invention of the printing press. (For a summary of elite moves against autodidacts see https://clarespark.com/2011/03/11/review-excerpts-re-hunting-captain-ahab/, especially the “letter to the editor” that explains why non-literary critics should read my book.) Without examining constant offensives against the newly literate and numerate, there can be no “cultural history.” That would entail, pace Siegel, a grander sweep than he has attempted. Since the Reformation, elites threatened with displacement have drenched ordinary people with counter-revolutionary, irrationalist propaganda, whether this takes place in the realm of language, or ongoing debates about human nature, or the Promethean impulse (always a bad thing for fact-hoarding elites), or what is or is not fascism.

To summarize, readers and other consumers of “culture” want to know (or should want to know) what they are experiencing. They (should) want to know who made this or that artifact (including her or his biography), who paid for it, what it is saying about past and present conflict (for instance, the range of permissible emotions, disobedience to authority or the role of Church and State in everyday life). Whereas organic conservatives are interested in none of the above. They value social cohesion/stability over the search for truth, and trot out their celebrities or institutions du jour to guide the autodidact away from the abyss they most fear:  rupture with the past—a past that is irrationalist to its very core, that makes objective reality a phantasm pursued only by monomaniacs.

Fred Siegel wants to be a friend to mass man, and to the middle class consumer of masscult. Yet he does not respect the very tools that ordinary people have developed, against the wishes of their betters, critical tools such as science and empiricism that point the way to understanding past and present.

*Siegel actually praises the large audience for the television presentation of Richard III, as part of his defense of 1950s popular culture, but the deployment of Richard III’s face by Commentary suggests a group assassination to me. And where oh where is John Milton and Paradise Lost? It was once the case that Shakespeare and Milton were paired as the leading voices in English poetry, but Milton, the puritan whose “Satan” “traced the ways of highest agents,”  and, with Eve, purveyor of the Fortunate Fall, is nowhere to be found in the new dispensation.

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