The Clare Spark Blog

November 25, 2014

Reflections on the Ferguson aftermath

mike-brown-protesters-ferguson
Having lived through the 1960s, later chronicling the rise of the civil rights, antiwar, and feminist movements on Pacifica radio, then going to graduate school in history at UCLA where I studied 19th and 20th century social movements and how they were taught by UCLA’s radical faculty, I have thoughts on the violent response to the Ferguson Missouri’s grand jury’s decision not to indict policeman Darren Wilson, which was met by lumpen mayhem and/or “protest” in the streets, not only in Missouri, but in larger cities with radicalized minority populations and sympathetic “liberal” white grownups of a certain age.

In response to the looting and burning, conservative pundit Andrea Tantaros suggested on the Fox show Outnumbered that families should sit down and talk to their (adolescent) kids, presumably to keep them on the straight and narrow. This is an understandable wish, but hopelessly naïve. Why?

As most parents know, puberty and adolescence are harrowing times, for youngsters, with or without the discipline of fathers, are rejecting parents for peer groups, and often indulge in ritual rebellions (as in their preference for the “romanticism,” drugs, fast cars, and the defiance of rock and roll). Add to this that the current population of American kids have been instructed by 1960s-70s veterans of social movements that were often New Left in orientation, hence undisciplined and attracted to anarchy and chaos, unlike the comparatively disciplined pre-war 1930s communist activists to whom they are often linked by populist conservatives.

Jimmystewartfather

Indeed, academics sometimes link the New Left spirit to that of the Jazz Age in the 1920s. There is the same primitivism and the same fantasy that pre-capitalist or “Third World” societies are closer to Nature, are uncorrupted by technology, and hence are instinctually liberated. It is imagined, incorrectly, that there are no rules about sex or aggression amongst, say, South Sea Islanders. (I have written about this misunderstanding ad nauseum. See for instance https://clarespark.com/2011/05/12/the-great-common-goes-to-the-white-house/, retitled “Rappers, primitivism, and ritual rebellion.” Or try this more recent blog on Robert Redford’s movie The Company You Keep, with its fantasy of a reconstructed happy family close to Nature: https://clarespark.com/2013/11/17/rehabilitating-the-weathermen/. Or, compare Marx to Lenin: https://clarespark.com/2014/06/07/marx-vs-lenin/.

I have left out one crucial cause of the looting, burning, and general protest, and it involves American communist politics in the 1960s. The Old Left should have known better, but having supported a Black Belt in the Southern US in the 1930s, later communists rejected the peaceful,  integrationist, pro-American strategy of Martin Luther King Jr. for what should be described as contemporary fascism or proto-fascism: the separatism and anti-“Euro-centricity” of the law-and-order West. It too found supporters in disaffected youth, herded together in ghettoes dominated by the Democratic machine.  (I chronicled this partly here: https://clarespark.com/2009/10/31/the-offing-of-martin-luther-king-jr-and-ralph-bunche/.) The Right has correctly pointed out the power of the Democratic machines in opposing school choice, but fails to understand child development, while overestimating the power of the “strong Father,” whose authoritarianism may incite revolt in the children.

It would be better for liberals, moderates and conservatives alike to pay attention to this recent history, which remains alive today. Historians of fascism as disparate as George L. Mosse and Robert O. Paxton similarly agree that European fascism was partially sparked by youth revolt, participants in the disillusion and brutality of the masses that were traumatized and ready to rumble after the horrors of the Great War–a cataclysm whose after effects still haunt us.

The action faction, sadly, is not dead.

redblackprotester

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September 8, 2011

Getting Down with Tom Wolfe

Time lauds A Man In Full

I found an old talk, “Getting Down,” that I gave on Pacifica radio (KPFK-FM, Oct. 1, 1990), now updated because I have been reading Tom Wolfe’s best-selling novels and collected essays. I view Wolfe as primarily a bohemian, a primitivist, who, after “getting down” comes home to classicism and a really nice apartment on the Upper East Side of  NYC, cluttered, like much of his prose. (For a tour, see http://www.theselby.com/2007TomWolfe/index.html.)  It is the mark of the true gentleman, adventuring into “New Journalism” with its literary oomph, its Zola-like passion for naturalism, realism and the organically-connected big picture, that he may saunter through the lower depths of society, sliding into their particular argot; only to retreat to his natural milieu without stains to his own sense of moral purity, his character; hence the signature white suit and the shrill rejection of modern art and architecture (the modernism so favored by Wall Street types?), with a vengeance. Tom Wolfe wants us to see him as a dandy, and yet not a dandy; as an agrarian, but also the knowing and sophisticated cosmopolitan, not so very unlike (like?) a Southern gentleman of old Virginia where he was born.

What is the problem with such Wolfian wandering, perhaps nostalgie pour la boue? Bohemianism or primitivism may be the primary type of social criticism that is tolerated in a pluralist society that has banished class analysis and class politics in favor of multiple and overlapping “interest groups.”  What is class analysis?*  What it is not, is the description of the culture of classes as if they were strata, or layers, or rungs on a ladder–or tribes to be dissected by the excavating archaeologist/anthropologist (the Wolfian gesture) As many radicals in the nineteenth century conceived them, classes were described in terms of their relations to other classes, specifically the ways in which workers were exploited and coerced; lacking land or tools or capital, they were at the mercy of their employers.  This led to political organization along class lines and the rise of socialist parties, culminating in the revolutionary period that preceded and followed the first world war: this kind of social analysis that focused on structural antagonisms between capital and labor was associated by conservatives and reactionaries with the myth of Prometheus, demagoguery, jacobin purity, and Jews spewing hate and plotting to destroy Christian order. Organic conservatives in England and America were terrified in 1919, and urged each other to move sharply to the left to map, thence to co-opt, dissent, and to propose a different conception of class, one that “integrated” them into an “organic” polity. (See https://clarespark.com/2009/09/19/populism-progressivism-and-corporatist-liberalism-in-the-nation-1919/.)

Decor in Wolfe’s NYC apartment

In 1919 the populist anticapitalists of The Nation were indulging in a form of primitivism, like Lewis Mumford, looking backward to a golden age of little towns in a cultivated pastoral, where the economy seemed to follow the communitarian ethos of artisans and small producers, with a strong dollop of Anglo-Saxonism.  But there were other forms of primitivism in the 1920s (and earlier), with which we are all familiar: the upper-class vogue for Harlem and jazz, the romance of the South Seas, the primitive masks and artifacts which inspired Picasso and other cubists; the art of the insane which fascinated the expressionists.  These were not only forms of escape; they enabled a critique of uptight war-engendering “bourgeois culture.”  By identifying with the victims of imperialism, with honest dirt, the bohemians had a safe launching pad from which to criticize their zealously perfectionist, super-clean, hard-driving parents, the parents you could never please, because they wanted you both to be independent and choose their way of life, pretending that you were “free” to choose. (I am thinking of Melville here, especially in his first book, Typee.)

But the protest could never have matured into a politics of transformation, that is, rational politics addressing the structural causes of suffering; for after the carnival was over, the bohemians feared and (covertly) despised the lower orders, who were loved primarily as foils to their parents.  If the entertainers stopped singing and dancing and copulating, if they wanted to modernize, i.e., to participate in politics as educated equals or leaders, the spell was broken.  They had to be one’s “negative identity” for the ritual rebellion to work: the walls between self and the exotic never tumbled down. In the case of Tom Wolfe, it is notable that his most lubricious female characters have wildly arranged jet black hair; they could be whitened slave women, Lulus, who lure white men to their destruction, to the pollution of their blue blood. (For instance the irresistible femmes fatales in Bonfire of the Vanities or in A Man in Full.)

In the writings of the American Studies movement (Wolfe has a Yale Ph.D, in this field), in the counter-culture and in many New Leftists, the same bohemianism obtained.  I suspect that many New Left lovers of black people or Third World victims were seduced by the qualities imputed to them: superhuman strength, savagery, happy-go-lucky child-like qualities, sexual freedom and other forms of expressiveness, like the blues.  Or because, as peasants, they were close to the soil, rooted, and one could imagine an idyllic society where individuals did not have to make hard, ambiguous choices, in which morality was not so clear-cut and regulated, in which kindly patriarchal figures did not arouse parricidal feelings of resentment in the children: this may be the fantasy in the counter-culture embrace of organicism or Confucius or Zen, or in Wolfe’s case, of Epictetus’s Stoicism.  In this scenario, empiricism, science and rationalism were treated solely as the deceptions foisted upon their victims by capitalists; similarly, capitalist advertising terminally corrupted the lower orders with sex-obsessed media, materialism and consumerism.  What were the consequences for relations between blacks and white civil rights workers, or between workers and the counter-culture, or between opponents of government-supported shocking art and the artists who shock the public?

It is one of the myths of the upper-classes that poor people are irrational and cannot grasp their interests without the intervention of middle-class or upper-class radicals.  Many black people knew that their cultures were being misread and appropriated by these latter-day minstrel show fans.  Many workers knew that technology had made life more bearable, and that rational politics advanced their interests; they also knew how to gauge the balance of forces, and what tactics would win. Workers are correct to resent the hippie radicals who profit from our system, without, in their view, making the blood sacrifices that workers do, then, from a position of moral superiority, upbraid them, or, in Wolfe’s case, appropriate them as surrogates for masculine honor and endurance in the face of overwhelming odds (see the character Conrad in A Man In Full).**

However, we also need to understand that primitivism, although the first stage of revolt in upper-class radicalism, may not necessarily stop with the identification with “the Other”; like all carnivals, it has the potential to get out of hand.  A certain amount of understanding and even forgiveness may be in order, when the primitivists show signs of growing up.  When we work with and interact with “the Other” as real people, as unique individuals, not as figments or masks, we may correct our distortions.  With insight, we may develop a more rational political culture.  But that will mean a commitment to self-education, self-scrutiny, and a sincere, not dilettantish,  interest in the problems of all Americans, not just the faraway.  As feminists, or black nationalists, or artists, or environmentalists, or civil libertarians, we may rail at white males, or Jews who we think control the media, or small-town/red state Republicans, or rednecks, or fascists, but these labels only build higher walls between us, they do not accurately describe the forces that have created our public health emergencies, and if we persist in these constructions of the demonic, our worst nightmares may come true.  If we want people to take a higher moral position, we must envision a society and a set of working relationships that make goodness possible.

*I am not suggesting a crude Marxism as adequate to historical analysis, but a careful account of competing economic interests and perceptions of one’s own self-interest. At times, Wolfe writes like a 1930s radical, such as John Dos Passos in the U.S.A. trilogy, which he admires. But whereas the 1930s Left was generally optimistic, TW is a cultural pessimist. See second footnote.

**One theme that I have not developed in this blog is Wolfe as chronicler of decadence, the calamity inevitable in industrial, urbanized societies that breed discontented, mobbish proletarians. Ann Coulter would seem to be sharing in this dim, ultimately pessimistic view, reminiscent of Vico and Volney, and more recently Hannah Arendt’s  “mob society.” In a recent talk given in Los Angeles, Coulter leaned on Gustave Le Bon’s influential book, The Crowd (1895) while promoting her new book, Demonic. Here are Le Bon’s concluding remarks: ” After having exerted its creative action, time begins that work of destruction from which neither gods nor men escape. Having reached a certain level of strength and complexity a civilisation ceases to grow, and having ceased to grow it is condemned to a speedy decline. [Its populace becomes a crowd, i.e. a mob]…With the progressive perishing of its ideal the race loses more and more the qualities that lent it its cohesion, its unity, its strength. The personality and intelligence of the individual may increase, but at the same time this collective egoism of the race is replaced by an excessive development of the egoism of the individual, accompanied by a weakening of character and a lessening of the capacity for action. …It is at this stage that men, divided by their interests and aspirations, and incapable any longer of self-government, require directing in their pettiest acts, and that the State exerts an absorbing influence…To pass in pursuit of an ideal from the barbarous to the civilised state, and then when this ideal has lost its virtue, to decline and die, such is the cycle of the life of a people.” Such doomsday views are the staple of ultra-organic conservatives, conflating the life cycles of animals and plants with forms of human organization. (For more on this topic see https://clarespark.com/2011/04/03/progressives-the-luxury-debate-and-decadence/.)

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