The Clare Spark Blog

January 12, 2015

What “free speech”?

free-speechThe march of millions in the streets of Paris on January 11, 2015, in solidarity with the libertarians of Charlie Hebdo (, has been met with either euphoria or cynicism. What no one is interrogating is the history of free speech, though much ink has been spilled over political correctness, politeness and tact in verbally assaulting our enemies du jour. I am still waiting for some French or Francophile academic to trot out the postmodern objections regarding (mis) representation and the elusiveness of precision in language.

My favorite enemy of “free speech” is Bill Donahue of the Catholic League. He makes no bones about good manners, tact, and impropriety, and like some Fox anchors, still fuming at Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, just as Donahue’s predecessors did as they compiled the Index or burned heretics at the stake. See, and

Are all these censorious institutions and practices safely tucked into the bad old days? Or do they linger into the present, affecting everyday speech and action in what one Herman Melville character described derisively as “free Ameriky”? I do remember my delight when I came across Melville’s abundant markings in Goethe’s autobiography, where Goethe described his frightening proclivities toward Prometheanism after he discovered the Pelagian heresy (a denial of original sin), taken up by the Moravians. For it has long been my position that Captain Ahab is a stand-in for the author himself, defying authority by proclaiming “Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.” Yet cautious Ishmael, not Ahab, survives the wreck that is the outcome of “the fiery [i.e. Promethean] hunt.”


For Melville, even his much admired Shakespeare was “a muffled man”. One reason that “deep-diving” Melville is in vogue among the pessimistic postmodernists is his poem “In a Church in Padua” that ends with this verse: “Dread diving-bell! In thee inurned/What hollows the priest must sound/Descending into confidences/Where more is hid than found.”

As I wrote in my blog, as long as hierarchies exist, free speech is a fond dream. We are all more or less tongue-tied; we are all acting whatever roles will keep us out of trouble with our superiors or even our closest friends and children.

And even were the pecking order to magically disappear, would we “tell the truth”? That would be a relief, assuming that we know ourselves and are safe from persecution or banishment from polite society.


Fat chance of that, no matter what Socrates or his predecessors advised

No wonder the frustrated young resort to punk, impudent rapping, and related forms of ritual rebellion. (See, retitled “Rappers, primitivism, and ritual rebellion”). Is it only a coincidence that the young rebels are often hyper-masculine?

October 6, 2013

The wild ones: Brando, Pacino, romantic rebels

Brando_-_The_Wild_OneIn prior blogs, I have tried to understand the appeal of such film masterpieces as The Godfather series. This blog will go beyond what I have written previously.

[Written in late August 2013:] Speaking of angst, on the flight home I watched all of The Godfather  (175 minutes). Like zillions of others, I thought it was a powerful and well-made movie; I have done zero research on it yet, but here are some guesses ahead of my future study. First, it was obviously Coppola’s FU to the Hollywood system. The first villain, though not identified as Jewish, was vulgar (rather like Citizen Kane/Cain). His name was Woltz (sounds German, could be German-Jewish). The corruption of Hollywood stands for a society that is utterly bought and sold by criminal elements: politicians, law enforcement, newspapers, everybody that shapes public opinion or protects us from the bad guys: (more Citizen Kane). The transformation of war hero, Ivy-educated Michael from “civilian” to his father’s successor as head of the family “business” could signify that brutalization of the young that is said by many historians to have followed the Great War. Note that conflicts between gang bosses are always referred to as wars, not disputes between criminals. In the world we see depicted everybody is guilty, except for the women, who are merely hysterical when they are not putting up with spousal abuse or neglect. They are both protected from the world of men, or are contented to be Sicilian breeders and feeders. Finally, I noted the importance of neighborhood, religion, family and ethnicity to Southern Italian immigrants. The Godfather series came out during the height of the social policy transition from an emphasis on class, to an emphasis on the durability of ethnic ties over class ties. The Corleone family has not assimilated, and doesn’t care. They hew to the colorful ways of 19th and 20th century urban ethnics with their scofflaw patronage systems, or in the case of the Corleones, Sicilian peasants and the patriarchal system. In comes localism, radical historicism, and multiculturalism. In other mass media offerings, the demonic is celebrated, in dangerous neo-Romantic fashion, see

[This was a sentence from Hunting Captain Ahab (my book on the 1920s Melville revival), quoting a progressive American Rabbi:] Lee Levinger’s “exceptional individual,” the “genius or social discoverer” was linked to the “criminal or social rebel.” Mad and tragic misfits–like stubborn, hypersensitive, primitivistic Jews regressively merged with their “alters” or “other”– refused the “tolerant” “social self.”

In a Facebook comment yesterday, I expressed my discomfort with the Godfather series, arguing that it was typical counter-cultural in its intention and result. A few howls went up, as many view the first two in the series as masterpieces of movie-making. They are surely skillfully made, but I will continue to analyze them as morally suspect, even dangerously so.

First, are they artifacts of the counter-culture (including the Left)? In the days when I was on the radio or in graduate school at UCLA, I met countless leftists, some of considerable fame and reputation. Many of them urged me to prove my bona fides by engaging in some criminal act. One street theater fellow even urged me to steal something from a wealthy art-collector’s home. Another (in academe) attempted to borrow money from me (illegal), or to engage in an action that would help a red buddy to evade taxation. Being a first child, I am very disposed to following the rules, and such approaches were anathema. I always viewed my younger sister as the rebel in the family (which she was), which is typical first child behavior on my part. I was the Apollonian, she was the Dionysian.)

I left the Left because when the chips were down, these supposed freedom fighters did not support me when I was purged as program director by a Stalinist manager (who actually forged a document to “prove” that I had been warned as Pacifica procedures directed), and then the mostly Trotskyists or anti-Stalinist leftists for whom I went out on a limb, neither anticipated my imminent firing (which I did), nor did they go beyond letter-writing to the President of the Pacifica Foundation, a prominent Berkeley radical New Leftist, who ended up upholding “at will” firings–so much for solidarity with the labor movement and its allies. In retrospect, the leftist commitments of my “friends” did not amount to much. They were perhaps primitive rebels, of the type described by communist historian Eric Hobsbawm in one of his shorter books (See

Then, after having received the doctorate in history, I was shopping my book ms. around. Verso books solicited the book ms., one of their editors told visiting academics that my book was to be published, but when I refused to drop the chapter on Tory resistance to the rising (crypto-Jewish) Whig bourgeoisie, I was warned to look elsewhere. Again, some prominent Left friends who had been published by Verso, sympathized with my “shabby treatment” but did nothing to defend my interests in getting the book published. Bucknell UP did the same song and dance; I must tone down the politics, or else. It was the Melville descendant, Paul Metcalf, whose close friend was on the board of Kent State UP, who took interest in my work and brought the ms. to the attention of Kent State UP, who not only published it with enthusiasm, but gave me no page limit, allowed extra photos, then entered it into every conceivable book award. These were mostly women younger than I, and exceedingly supportive.

Excuse this digression: the point is that these “leftists” or “counter-culture” types mentioned while I was still on the radio or in grad school, were all talk and no action. I was being the good lefty, encouraging the labor movement, while they were protecting their air time and such power as they imagined they had.


Back to the appeal of The Godfather series, or for that matter, of Al Pacino in the remake of Scarface. I have written before about ritual rebellion and the primitivist gesture.  (See, retitled “ Rappers, Primitivism, and Ritual Rebellion”). No one would argue that The Godfather series (especially the first and second installments) are not virtuoso movie-making. Some aesthetes would argue that art and propaganda are not to be intermingled. I cannot agree with that judgment. Every art work is a cultural artifact and is positioned within the larger conflicts of the time.

Who does not want respect? Who does not want the family to be cohesive and protective of each member? How many of us get such respect or loyalty, in the family or out of it? How many of us crave the safety of the imagined family? The museums are chock full of jewelry or weaponry of bygone days, and they attract that infantile part of us that loves glitter, simplicity, and “honor”—no matter how bogus, no matter how far we fall back into a re-imagined early childhood.

Movies will do that to us, whether they serve as catharsis of violent impulses, or identification with heroes or antiheroes. Primitivism is a poor substitute for concerted political action grounded in the universalist ethics embodied in the laws that civilized people make. Enjoy the barbaric yawps if you like, but don’t pretend that they are a substitute for advanced morality. Above all, take note that these gangster sons in the Coppola movies never have to suffer through individuation. They neither “kill” the father, nor forge a separate identity from the Stern Patriarch. That’s where the wild things are.

May 12, 2011

Rappers, Primitivism, and Ritual Rebellion

Common, a man of the streets

A successful poet/rapper/artist named Common (formerly Common Sense, sic) was invited to perform at the White House May 11, 2011. This blog is about the general problem of hip hop culture, its practitioners, and its noxious appeal.

“Liberals” and “conservatives” were divided yesterday regarding the propriety of the invitation. Fox News Channel was in a snit all day, while Jon Stewart’s show took umbrage at this misplaced Foxian zeal, citing their prior adoration of Ted Nugent, and their ignoring the agressive and homicidal lyrics of Johnny Cash. Stewart did his own comical rap, directed against the “twits” at Fox. I personally objected to the invite on many grounds, including Jay Carney’s ludicrous attempt to explain Common’s legitimacy as a poet because he was making “socially conscious art.”  One Facebook thread on the subject elicited a flood of comments, many of them in defense of Common and the need for catharsis. No one attacked hip hop culture as such.

I am not any kind of specialist in the study of hip hop culture (though I am not unfamiliar with it either), partly because I find it at best primitivist* and suspect that it is a travesty insofar as middle-class kids who make its music, tee-shirts, and glitzy jewelry,  and purchase its other products are not concerned with the problems of ghetto youth, except as an outlet for their own frustrations with parents, schoolteachers, and other authority figures, or as an easy way to tap a market of angry young black males and their white allies in rage. It is a cheap pseudo-romantic form of adolescent revolt. Does Common care about those black adolescents stuck in ineffective schools, propagandized into antagonism to education as “a white thing”, and often beguiled by the drug culture and its profits?

There is no such thing as art as an expression outside of, and independent of society.  If “Common” aspires to social criticism, he should provide a better analysis of the sorry condition of American black ghettoes–for instance, the policies of the Democratic machines that have long controlled the big cities. He might want to look also at the separatism and thuggery of such figures as Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Louis Farrakhan, with whom he has been associated. He might want to look at the poetry and prose of all the memorable writers and poets who came before, and whose language did not descend to the gutter. Oh, but he can’t do that, for the white oppressor is the target of his spleen, and so even those significant black writers who preceded him must have been Uncle Toms. Look at his images on the internet. Is he a clean cut entrepreneur or a man of the streets, attuned to the miseries of his brothers and sisters?

[Added 3-18-14: A vigorous dispute broke out today on my FB page over Bill O’Reilly’s takedown of Jay Z, and here is how I answered many comments: “My problem with Jay Z and other hip hop moguls is not their success in a capitalist society. It is this: they had no choice, for powerful culture critics on the social democratic Left joined the New Left in rejecting anything and everything produced by Eurocentrism/white supremacy. There have been wonderful black entertainers and composers from an earlier period, before black nationalists resegregated a culture that was syncretic and hence original: to name a few: Scott Joplin, Bojangles, Bert Williams, all the black jazzmen, bluesmen, etc. Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin would have never become great composers without their predecessors with darker skin. Fred Astaire would have not existed, nor would Gene Kelly. I could go on and on. How many young people today even know what “syncretism” means?]

Cultural anthropologists are familiar with the form of social control known as “ritual rebellion.” In an autocratic society, run by unaccountable and arbitrary kings, periodic “carnivals” or similar releases allow the lower orders to let off steam. They are kings for day in this world turned upside down. But the rebellion, that is never allowed to name its true target (incompetent authority), is ineffectual in transforming the conditions it abhors. The new day dawns, and the ties that bind the lower classes to illegitimate authority are stronger than ever. So it is with hip hop. Our black population deserves better guidance.

*Primitivism is regressive and often racist: it imagines savages as free from “civilized” rules, a Golden Age of liberated instincts where anything goes. Much of modernism is primitivist and expressed a disgust with “civilization” after the Great War. But there were numerous precedents, for instance Diderot in his Voyage of Bougainville. Or see Marcuse’s critique of “repressive desublimation,” a vigorous refusal of 1960s counter-cultural tendencies in his Eros and Civilization.

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