YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

September 10, 2012

“Populist demagoguery” and its respectable lineage

Lyonel Feininger Emeute

One way to look at the New Left ascendancy in the media and throughout educational institutions is to note that while separatist ethnic or women’s studies affirmed very old mindsets of victimology, thus promoting an antidote to, and  insurgency against, “the Man” or against “white male supremacy”, history and other humanities professors and political scientists promoted anti-imperialism, depicting the U.S. as a hateful sham democracy. Some of the leading professors admired by New Leftists were Walter La Feber (Cornell), and William Appleman Williams (U. of Wisconsin-Madison), but these were preceded by such progressives as Frederick Jackson Turner, Charles Beard, and Richard Hofstadter.

It was Turner (1893, 1921) who warned that the closing of the frontier and its free lands would force the issue of socialism onto the stage of history; while Charles Beard attacked the money-mad founders (Hamilton), and Hofstadter suggested that the moderate men needed to tone down the conflict between labor and capital through co-option of movements from below; i.e., selective concessions. (See especially https://clarespark.com/2010/07/04/pacifica-radio-and-the-progressive-movement/ and  https://clarespark.com/2010/07/18/white-elite-enabling-of-black-power/ Some may dispute my characterization of Hofstadter, who did criticize populism and antisemitism in The Age of Reform and The Paranoid Style but his first book on Social Darwinism would support progressivism as remedy for laissez-faire capitalism, understood as nature red in tooth and claw. That stereotype persists today in pro-Democratic Party propaganda.)

Thus we find ourselves in a situation where mass media and the humanities are heavily weighted against the “vile” Republican Party, which is not only evil in itself, but which could force a communist revolution in reaction to its supposed repression of working class and middle class aspirations that progressives have so far successfully prevented.

Not one of the academic programs or anti-imperialist historians mentioned above lobbied for the study of antisemitism, not even after WW2. “The International Jew”, a.k.a. “the money power” occupies all of their imaginations, however hidden by monikers such as “Wall Street” or “Corporate greed”.  We ignore the power of their pervasive and largely undetected propaganda at our peril.

https://clarespark.com/2009/09/19/populism-progressivism-and-corporatist-liberalism-in-the-nation-1919/

https://clarespark.com/2009/09/18/bad-sex-in-the-new-york-times/

https://clarespark.com/2011/02/02/the-legitimate-aspirations-of-the-___-people/ (the original Populist movement in the US with comment on Michael Kazin’s book)

https://clarespark.com/2011/03/28/index-to-multiculturalism-blogs/

https://clarespark.com/2011/10/10/populist-catharsis-on-wall-street/.

https://clarespark.com/2012/01/25/the-state-of-the-union-stinks/

https://clarespark.com/2011/12/10/before-saul-alinsky-rules-for-democratic-politicians/

https://clarespark.com/2012/08/05/hating-finance-capital/

https://clarespark.com/2012/07/19/communist-ideas-go-mainstream/

https://clarespark.com/2012/09/03/eros-and-the-problem-of-solidarity/

https://clarespark.com/2012/09/05/proto-fascism-and-the-democrat-peoples-community/

https://clarespark.com/2012/09/07/charisma-and-symbolic-politics/

https://clarespark.com/2012/09/14/ron-paul-anarchist-in-chief/ (Phillip Smyth’s guest blog on right-wing populism)

https://clarespark.com/2012/12/01/petit-bourgeois-radicalism-and-obama/ (on James H. Cone and other black supremacists)

https://clarespark.com/2013/02/02/totalitarianism-polarization-and-single-issue-politics/

https://clarespark.com/2015/05/02/multiculturalism-and-the-persistence-of-feudalism/ (inspired by Mosby and the Baltimore events)

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September 29, 2011

The Abraham Lincoln Conundrum

The example of Abraham Lincoln’s conciliatory, moderate  leadership is now offered as the solution to the dramatic polarization of the American electorate by such as Bill O’Reilly, co-author of a new book Killing Lincoln, advertised as a “thriller” but certainly not a novel contribution to the massive literature on the controversial President, assassinated shortly after his second term as President was under way. Nor is it likely that O’Reilly has looked into the attempt by leading social psychologists affiliated with the Roosevelt administration to merge the “idealized” images of good father figures: Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. I wrote about their attempts here, in my study of the teaching of American literature for propaganda purposes, Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival. The materials from which this startling advice to other progressives was drawn are held by the Harvard University Archives, and consisted of numerous worksheets, distributed nationally to citizen groups interested in Henry A. Murray and Gordon Allport’s program of “civilian morale,” circa 1941-42. After this excerpt from a published work, I will reflect upon the differing assessments of Lincoln and the more “radical” or “Jacobin” members of the Republican Party.

[ Book excerpt, chapter two, quoting Murray and Allport; the narrative is mine:]  The section “General Attitudes Toward Leaders” anticipated the criticism that American propaganda duplicated Nazi methods. First the authors warned “the less the faith in sources of information, the worse the morale.” The next item suggested “Linking of Present Leader to the Idealized Leaders of the Past”: ‘The more the present leader is seen as continuing in the footsteps of the great idealized leaders of the past, the better the morale. (Picture of Roosevelt between Washington and Lincoln would encourage this identification.) The more the present leader is seen as falling short of the stature of the great idealized leaders of the past, the worse the identification (11). By effective leadership the group’s latent communality may emerge through identification with the leader. If this smacks of the Führer-Prinzip, we would insist that identification is a process common to all societies, and that what distinguishes the democratic leadership from the Nazi leadership is not the process of identification but the content of what is identified with. It is the function of the democratic leader to inspire confidence in the democratic way of life, in its value for the individual or the society and not mere identification with his person, or the mythical Volk (16).’ (my emph.)

For the tolerant materialists Murray and Allport, as with David Hume before them, there is no foreordained clash between individuals and institutions, no economic relationships to undermine altruism and benevolence: man is naturally communal and “society” as a coherent entity, a collective subject, actually exists. The good leader is neither autocratic nor corrupt, “does not waver, is not self-seeking, is impartial, accepts good criticism” (#4, 10). As we have seen, tolerance, i.e., criticism of leadership, had its limits.[i] The Constitutionalist legacy had to be reinterpreted because critical support of political institutions in the Lockean-Freudian mode is not identical with “identification,” an unconscious process whereby primitive emotions of early childhood are transferred to all authority, coloring our ‘rational’ choices and judgments. Only the most rigorous and ongoing demystification and precise structural analysis (with no government secrets) could maintain institutional legitimacy for political theorists in the libertarian tradition, but, for the moderates, such claims to accurate readings as a prelude to reform were the sticky residue of the regicides. And where is the boundary between good and bad criticism? Alas, just as Martin Dies had suggested that the poor should tolerate the rich, Murray and Allport advised Americans to tolerate (or forget) “Failure in the Nation’s Past.” We must do better, of course.

The worksheet continues, recommending that traditional American evangelicalism embrace the disaffected, for there may be moderate enthusiasts in the new dispensation: “The submerging of the individual in enthusiastic team work is not altogether foreign to the American temper. This means Jews, the “lower” classes, the draftees, labor unions, and so on. It cannot be done by fiat, but the inequalities might be mitigated if not removed, so that otherwise apathetic groups would feel a stake in the defense of the country, and the middle and upper classes more aware of the meaning of democracy (16).”

These latter remarks were intended to answer the question Murray and Allport had posed at the beginning of their worksheets: “Certain themes in Axis propaganda are continually stressed, notably the self-righteousness and hypocrisy of the democracies in general and of the U.S. (and President Roosevelt) in particular. What’s to be done about it?” (4). Virtually the entire postwar program of conservative reform was foreshadowed in these pages. As formulated in the mid-nineteenth century, abolitionist and working-class demands for universal education, equal rights, and enforcement of the Constitution would be redirected into the quotas of affirmative action or multiculturalism. In worksheet #17, “Long Term Aspects of Democratic Morale Building,” a program of integration and deferential politeness would rearrange the American people’s community:

” …far from ignoring or suppressing diversities of intelligence, the objective of democratic morale-building should be their conscious integration into an improving collective opinion. The techniques of such integration exist. They are inherent in the democratic tradition of tolerance and the democratic custom of free discussion. They exist, however, in outline rather than in any ultimate or perhaps even very high state of development (4). [Quoting Gordon Allport:]…Our pressure groups are loud, their protests vehement and our method of electioneering bitter and sometimes vicious. In the process of becoming self-reliant Americans have lost respect, docility, and trust in relation to their leaders. Our habit of unbridled criticism, though defended as a basic right, brings only a scant sense of security to ourselves in an emergency, and actively benefits the enemies of the nation (5). (“integration” Murray’s and Allport’s emph., bold-face mine)

And one such source of insecurity (i.e., subversion) was anti-war education and pacifism: “insofar as the disapproval of war was based on a rejection of imperialist patriotism, it engendered war-cynicism” (Red-bound typescript, 4). In other words, Murray and Allport were admitting that involvement in the war could not be legitimated as an anti-imperialist intervention, nor could there be any other appeal to reason. Leaders, past and present, would have to be idealized; all criticism bridled in the interest of “integration.” The disaffected should moderate their demands, settling for mitigation, not relief.
And if, despite the neo-Progressive prescriptions, the road to national unity remained rocky, scapegoating, properly guided by social scientific principles, would certainly deflect aggression away from ruling groups. [end, excerpt, Hunting Captain Ahab.]

Left-liberal historians vs. Southern historians on Lincoln: That the historic figure Lincoln has been appropriated for present-day partisan concerns should be obvious. Richard Hofstadter debunked him as well as Roosevelt in The American Political Tradition (1948): for Hofstadter, Lincoln was a calculating, ambitious politician, who followed public opinion without leading it. That same sub-text can be found in the more recent popular biography by David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (Simon and Schuster, 1995), foreshadowed by Southerner T.  Harry Williams’s anthology of Lincoln’s speeches (Packard, 1943).  For instance, in reporting Lincoln’s last public speech, Donald takes him to task: “…Nor was he about to issue a proclamation for the general reorganization of the Southern states. The sole item on the agenda was peace, and Lincoln did not in this speech—or elsewhere—offer a broad vision of the future, outlining how the conquered South should be governed. He stipulated only that loyal men must rule. His view was not that of the  Conservatives, who simply wanted the rebellious states, without slavery, to return to their former position in the Union, nor was it the view of the Radicals, who wanted to take advantage of this molten moment of history to recast the entire social structure of the South. [Williams wrote an entire book on Lincoln and the Radicals.] He did not share the Conservatives’ desire to put the section back into the hands of the planters and businessmen who had dominated the South before the war, but he did not adopt the Radicals’ belief that the only true Unionists in the South were African-Americans. (p.582).”

Donald, originally a Southerner. later a Harvard professor of note, and author of a hostile biography of Charles Sumner (Donald refers to the Radical Republicans as “Jacobins” in the Lincoln book)  is writing partly in the Hofstadter tradition, as he demonstrates throughout this minutely documented study of Lincoln’s life—a study that strongly contradicts the conversion narrative offered up by leftist historian Eric Foner (see https://clarespark.com/2011/03/30/eric-foners-christianized-lincoln/). By contrast, Foner uses the Lincoln example to buttress the case for reparations, in concert with other left-liberal historians such as David Brion Davis, David Blight, Steven Mintz, and John Stauffer. They are not interested in Lincoln’s purported moderation (that in Donald’s account slips into rank opportunism and lack of principle).

Eric Foner made much of Lincoln’s growing religiosity as his presidency progressed, but one wonders if the religious rhetoric of the Second Inaugural Address was not at least partly inspired by Julia Ward Howe’s Battle Hymn of the Republic (1861), with an almost identical appeal to Providence, hence an evasion of personal responsibility for the welfare of the freedmen, for Lincoln’s recurrent depression and sense of horror over the casualties of the Civil War must at least partly account for his distressing lack of personal security that allowed Booth’s conspiracy to triumph. It is not an unreasonable inference to suggest that Lincoln was suicidal, and not only at the end, when the country remained enraged, as it had been for many years over such matters as the expansion of slavery and states rights. Add to that the slaughter that we have just learned was underestimated in its numbers of killed and wounded–estimates now exceed 750,000, and perhaps that too is low! See http://www2.bupipedream.com/news/professor-rethinks-civil-war-death-toll-1.2613738.

I find it impossible to laud Lincoln’s record as a moderate who succeeded in conciliating sectional conflict, as O’Reilly imagines; no human being could have done. We are still fighting over the causes and conduct of the Civil War; the proposals of the so-called Radical Republicans might have done much to allay the bitterness that remains over this irrepressible, unresolved, traumatic and traumatizing conflict. (See https://clarespark.com/2011/02/20/are-we-still-fighting-the-civil-war/.) For a treatment of Herman Melville’s treatment of Robert E. Lee and the Civil War in general, see https://clarespark.com/2008/05/03/margoth-vs-robert-e-lee/. And oh, yes, I still maintain that the antislavery Senator from Massachusetts, Charles Sumner, was at least one contributor to Melville’s world-famous Captain Ahab. See https://clarespark.com/2009/10/05/charles-sumner-moderate-conservative-on-lifelong-learning/, for similarities between Sumner’s views and Ahab’s words.


[i]        David Hume had confidently asserted that unpredictability enters politics when factions are infiltrated by radical religion; by triumphalist hypermoralistic, hyper-rationalist puritan extremists: the link between cause and effect would no longer be obvious. See History of England, Vol. 6, year 1617. The Hume entry in the Encyclopedia Brittanica, 1971, presents Hume as a philosopher whose major contribution was his demonstration that there could be no theory of reality, no verification for our assertions of causality. Faced with the necessity of action we rely upon our habit of association and (subjective) beliefs. And yet Hume is described as a thinker who saw philosophy as “the inductive science of human nature.” He is not  described as a moderate or a Tory.

January 15, 2011

Healing, Trauma, Mystery

Jared Loughner's backyard shrine

I have closely followed the media coverage of the Tucson massacre and listened intently to the President’s speech at the U. of Arizona. Much praise was heard throughout the punditry for his message of healing (including Fox News!), and though he separated uncivil speech from the actions of the (unnamed) “shooter,” still his message was received as “spiritual” and gave a sense of closure to many listeners (probably the press who longed to move on). (Meanwhile, many of my Facebook friends viewed the event as a campaign speech and a circus.) The point is that the President fortified his centrist credentials in the eyes of many.

    If you have followed my blogs on this website, you will know that I have been verbally apoplectic over the notion that “moderation” can “heal” irreconcilable conflicts, whether they are within ourselves or out in the world. The word “trauma” was rarely heard over the air waves or in the blogosphere this week, though clearly the numerous victims were traumatized, and though faith may help some of the victims and their families “heal”, I remain skeptical. Wounds may heal. Irreparable losses and deficiencies in families or in our political actions may not, notwithstanding the promises of professional “healers.”*  In my view, conflicts can often be managed; sometimes they are not manageable.

     There is now talk of “toning down” the more raucous talk-radio hosts: Obama warned us not to “turn on each other.” I’m all for that as a civilized person and opponent of all forms of demonization, since the Devil is not a character who inhabits my psyche or anywhere else in my belief system. But I wonder about the social function that the “haters” perform in society in helping others vent their rage, rage that has many possible causes: coming back from war, endless bullying in school without intervention from the authorities, horrible incidents in childhood and a general lack of knowledgeable, responsible parenting. I have written endlessly here, too, of my opposition to apocalyptic thinking that is so typical of demagogues–no matter where they stand on the political spectrum. The constant invocation of irreversible environmental changes, for instance, is a form of terror, and one can only speculate about how such talk distorts our political culture. In the case of “climate change,” propaganda can be so extreme that a pause to consider scientific evidence pro and con is forestalled because we become invested in one outcome or the other, just to defend ourselves against the worst case scenario. The alternative to either idealizing the effects of technical progress or of turning back to an imagined  Golden Age is the intensive labor of investigation and hard thought.

   I have also written about “mystery”–another concept invoked by the President last week, when he said we would never understand what the shooter was feeling (or words to that effect). The notion of limited human understanding is sometimes appropriate, but more often comes with a strong attachment to those religions that emphasize the weakness of the human sensorium, and the limited understanding that will be repaired in paradise or the underworld for the deserving (Plato speaking through Socrates!). Actually, we know quite a bit about mental illnesses of the extreme forms, and there are treatments available for such sufferers, while pathbreaking research proceeds apace and needs our support. In my view, the President missed an opportunity when he did not name Jared Loughner and his parents as victims in the massacre, for he could have opened a national discussion of social policy in the various states regarding treatment or institutionalization of the hopelessly mentally ill, including the shame attached to all kinds of emotional problems. Indeed, it is widely held that only (sex-obsessed, carnal, worldly) Jews believe in or practice psychoanalysis and related therapies. We don’t give enough weight to the power of antisemitism itself to induce what historian Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style.”

   To sum up: the rift in our country was not created by the language used or abused by politicians and pundits. Two economic philosophies face one another and only empirical investigation of the most stringent kind will support the arguments of either the proponents of progressivism or the proponents of libertarianism/laissez-faire/the self-regulated free market. Let us hope that our country eschews the demagogic comforts of conceptions like “healing” the permanently traumatized, and that we adhere to the most precise and rigorous investigations–no holds barred– of what ails us.

*Recommended reading: Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man (1857), the scene in which the Invalid Titan confronts and strikes the Herb Doctor. There is no doubt where Melville stood on the permanence of trauma, nor is there any doubt that his family resented his suffering and inconsolability.

August 30, 2009

That slippery word “populism”

Filed under: 1 — clarelspark @ 8:10 pm
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Richard Hofstadter

There is a role for both the public and private sectors in a democratic republic: what the division of responsibilities should be is the subject of the most raucous debates, as we have seen during the first months of the Obama administration. There is too much loose talk and name-calling, not enough healthy skepticism of one’s own predilections in favor of  this or that policy. I have frequently criticized the Populist/Progressive movement on this website, not only because I encourage vigorous, fact-based criticism of  over-reaching government powers or of any other “liberal” institution that betrays its principles and discourages competition, but because the original Populist movement in the 1890s was directed against “the money power” that was frequently (if not always) associated with “the Jews.” Sadly, some New Leftist academics have airbrushed the conspiratorial assumptions of populism in an attempt to rehabilitate the Populist movement; often this took the form of a general attack on the historian Richard Hofstadter, author of The Age of Reform (that nailed the Populists for antisemitism) as well as his work on “the paranoid style.” (For an encomium to Hofstadter see http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/98nov/hofstadt.htm.)

Visitors here will notice that nearly all my entries are concerned with explicit or embedded antisemitic messages. It is very easy to spot the more obvious kinds of antisemitism that demonize “the Jews”, but even those organizations that are defending “the Jews” or the state of Israel do not go far enough, in my view, in identifying the more subtle forms of Jew hatred–a phobia that is so intense as to affect mental and physical health and impair the very critical processes that make a democratic republic possible. For if all criticism of [illegitimate, arbitrary] authority is subconsciously experienced as parricide or deicide, then the guilty would-be citizen has nothing but “the heart” (the emotions) to react with, and may become putty in the hands of demagogues.

When I criticize the Ivy League or other elite universities, it is not out of [populist] anti-intellectualism, but because I want the great universities to live up to their mission, that is, to train future leaders and innovators, who will then go on to make their professions true to their founding principles, whether these be designing curricula in the schools that develop fully conscious citizens who can separate facts from propaganda and test their government in every respect; or who, as experts, will separate the wheat from the chaff, and who will stand up to the institutions that direct their work in anti-social directions.

Take for instance the false impressions disseminated by the far, far Right, who now claim that “political correctness” and “the liberal narrative” were created by “the Frankfurt Shool” [sic]. Refugee scholars from Germany, such as Adorno, Horkheimer, Erich Fromm, and Marcuse are now the big bogey men on some blatantly racist and antidemocratic sites (one brags about its advocacy of monarchism). As I have demonstrated in my own research, much of it reproduced here on the YDS website, the Frankfurt School of critical theory did not initiate the goals of the Populist-Progressive movement of conservative reform in America (e.g. the New Deal), nor did they plot to curb the First Amendment.

The Frankfurters did share a sharp critique of “mass culture” and wrote about Hitler as the creature of mass culture (or popular culture), but in doing so, they were merely echoing centuries of aristocratic propaganda about the incapacities of “the people” to rule themselves without aristocratic leadership (see my blog “The People Is An Ass….” and the four entries on Hitler and the Big Lie: https://clarespark.com/2009/08/24/the-people-is-an-ass-or-a-herd/, https://clarespark.com/2011/06/19/index-to-links-on-hitler-and-the-big-lie/). And some of their most prestigious members did recommend the use of materials created by Henry A. Murray and Harold Lasswell (on the latter two men, see the blogs on civilian morale and preventive politics, both filled with documentary evidence of social psychologists seeking 1. to limit speech and create subliminal propaganda on a grand scale in order to maintain consensus, not to seek the truth; and 2. to identify latent radicals and keep them out of leadership).

But that is what pseudo-moderates do, so the worst sin I can attribute to such as Theodore Adorno is organic conservatism, a stance that he represented as “genuine liberalism.” (See the blog on his definition of that term, or the longer blog on corporatist liberalism: https://clarespark.com/2009/08/25/t-w-adorno-and-his-funny-idea-of-genuine-liberalism/, https://clarespark.com/2009/08/09/what-is-a-corporatist-liberal-and-why-should-they-frighten-us/.) As for his defense of high culture, there is no such thing as an ideologically consistent high culture standing armed to defend reality, science, and the rule of law, and I doubt that Adorno would have disagreed with that judgment. Where I fault the affinity group to the Frankfurters is their too hasty rejection of the Enlightenment and science as such, often attributing the rise of Hitler to the irreligous technical worker (see F. Meinecke on this diagnosis: https://clarespark.com/2010/04/12/multiculturalismethnopluralism-in-the-mid-20th-century/). But that is not why the far, far Right is going after them.  Write the ending to this blog yourselves.

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