infografia imagines elements of critical thought
Today, September 8, 2009, the President addressed a national audience of schoolchildren from kindergarten through K-12, reiterating the American Dream, a dream attained through “taking responsibility,” learning from failure, overcoming obstacles, and, he advised, almost in passing, learning to think critically. That critical thought remains a controversial and muddled value, or might be opposed by fundamentalists of either Left or Right, or might, as a concept, be simply incomprehensible to younger children was not addressed by either Nina Easton or William Kristol on Fox News Channel, both of whom praised the talk as reinforcing conservative values. Meanwhile, Joe Hicks told Pajamas Media viewers not to emulate Sean Penn’s tantrums by succumbing to Obama Derangement Syndrome before they even heard the speech; that Eric Holder’s hiring of numerous civil rights litigators to dig up rampant racial discrimination, notwithstanding his appointment by a black president, was worthier of attention.
Shortly after watching Obama’s speech, I opened my Facebook page and learned that Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism had been deemed by one reviewer as the most important book of the last decade (a book that, in my view, does not look at the resistance to informed political participation from a long enough time frame). I invite readers of today’s blog not only to consider what each of us means by appropriately critical thought in a would-be democratic republic, but to find out what attitudes, facts, and narratives teachers of history and social studies in the public schools are actually relating concerning the national biography. As my own contribution I resuscitate an essay written almost twenty years ago, while I still had hopes of reforming Pacifica from within.
And all that Jazz. On 15 July 1990, I met with Pacifica listeners who had listened to my radio series, “How Do We Know When We Are Not Fascists?” and wanted to discuss its implications face-to-face. It was valuable to me as a guide to future programming, and helped me to understand how my work differs from that of other social critics, both in its form and its content. The listeners who attended our fund-raiser ranged in age from the twenties to the sixties. Many were social activists, some were teachers and graduate students; they also included accountants, an air-conditioning repairman, a house painter, an artist, a TV editor, and a manicurist. One listener was a Holocaust survivor. We were all white people, neither very poor nor very rich. Everyone was well informed and articulate: there were many expressions of anxiety about our society, disgust with mass culture, and despair for the future; one listener wants to leave the country. After I had summarized my argument for the series and answered questions and criticisms, I got three interesting objections to my analysis. One person felt that my emphasis on anti-Semitism was a furtive defense of Israel. Another was frustrated with me; I talked too much about the past. She seemed to want rules and recipes for action, as if she wanted to know whom to hate. Whereas I, hoping to counter the demoralizing effects of centuries of antidemocratic propaganda, had only offered the idea that we must always improvise and address the specific circumstances of the moment; finally we must rely on our own critical capacities to evaluate and judge competing interpretations of society and plans for social action; I was saying that such enlightened determinations would be the result of study, introspection, debate, and the testing of would-be-allies and leaders over time. Another listener, a member of a Maoist group wanted me to say that America was already fascist because of our behavior in Central America. [It seems to me today that neither of these three understood that you can’t get to peace and love through hate. Not good for conflict-resolution, if that is your thing.]
Dirt: a problem of the transition. Why should we compare the political culture of Nazi fascism to our own? I continue to argue that “fascism” is not simply the brutality of counter-revolution and the suppression of a militant labor movement, but an attack on the Brain, on the critical spirit of the Enlightenment that alone could make democratic participation and self-management effective. This critical spirit was represented by organic conservatives as the figure of the Romantic Wandering Jew, dirty, demonic, restless, and a transgressor: the practitioner of solitary vice, reading library books and doing archival research and investigative journalism. He is ourselves in the Pacifica audience.
If we fail to make the distinction between Nazi fascism and authoritarian tendencies in our own culture, then we will not be able to understand contested institutions like the media, traditional families, and the school system: we will not know how and where to put our energies. We will not be able to evaluate the analysis and tactics of “progressive” social movements or embattled artists and writers based in the petit-bourgeoisie, and which are clamoring for our support and which may be proto-fascist and therefore deluded and destructive. We will not see the openings for effective social action and dialogue with those who do not agree with us, but may continue to feel desperate and immobilized. Moreover, if we fail to understand the Holocaust, we may not be able to prevent mass death today; we may continue to do to ourselves and to our environment what the Nazis did to the Jews of Europe. Like them we will attempt to turn back the clock and recover the good father who alone, could and would restrain the predatory side of capitalism.
Three discussions of Nazism are of interest to me this week. In May, Saul Friedländer’s UCLA seminar showed Syberberg’s 7 1/2 hour film, Our Hitler, A Film From Germany; during our fund drive, Michael Parenti gave taped talks on the abuses of psychohistory and then Nazism; Elinor Langer’s article on Neo-Nazis was the centerpiece of last week’s Nation magazine. Though it did not advertise its Burkean antidemocratic commitments, the Syberberg film represented the conservative nationalist position, claiming that Hitler was elected democratically, that he was the inheritor of German Romanticism through Wagner: he was the little man who had seized the printing press and the film camera, aestheticizing violence and creating the corrupting spectacles of mass culture. Like the Jungian psychoanalysts in America who worked for the OSS analyzing Hitler’s perverted psyche, Syberberg made Hitler archetypally Jewish.
Michael Parenti offered the Stalinist interpretation of Nazism: it was monopoly capital’s assault on the labor movement; anti-Semitism was a propaganda ploy to smear communists; he dismissed the question of fascism’s appeal as not terribly relevant. The tactics of the KPD were not mentioned, nor did he attempt to explain the Holocaust. Eleanor Langer’s article worried about Tom Metzgar, David Duke, and skinheads, collapsed Jew hatred into racism in general, and argued that racism, ostensibly at bay after World War II was alarmingly returning. The issue was filled with advertisements from liberal anti-Nazi, anti-Klan organizations asking for support. Langer did attempt to counter the ADL characterization of neo-Nazis as extremists; we should look at mainstream racism, she said finally (contradicting her earlier statement about the abated racism after the war?). Because none of these social critics has delivered a satisfying account of antisemitism’s functioning in Nazi culture, they cannot help us identify it here or frame effective tactics to defeat fascism today. For the remainder of this broadcast, I shall show that historical analysis helps us understand the present and gives us hope and courage, but also demands that we examine our attitudes toward America and the “right-wingers” we are certain are our sworn enemies, and who, we are certain, bear no resemblance to ourselves.
What was the threat of the Jews? What was their connection with the rationalism, science, technology, and radical puritanism we associate with the word Enlightenment, and which accelerated in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries? What was unique about modernity? For the first time in history, the material conditions for global peace were developed. The unfettered imagination created the technology that would one day eliminate toil and gross inequities of wealth; the preconditions for maximum personal development would finally be realized. Mass communications made mass education (and therefore responsible political participation) plausible. The psychology of John Locke proposed that experience, not our fallen state, determined one’s understanding of the world. This Lockean tradition emphasized possibilities of cooperation and educability: Lockeans stressed the importance of institutions that could be modified and improved; twentieth century Behaviorism owes more to Locke than does conservative psychoanalysis, which may be viewed as counter-revolutionary, e.g., in its emphasis on the Death Instinct.
The English Civil War, the American and French Revolutions raised the specter of lower-class autodidacts whose nosiness and insatiable curiosity were questioning the virtue of ruling élites. Customary “deference” was over. The radical Protestant sects which emerged during the period of the English Civil War were identified with Old Testament Jews by their Royalist enemies. Meanwhile, the new science was promoting the idea of species-unity, as all of nature seemed governed by knowable and universal laws: nature was our teacher and a text anyone could learn to read. The procedures of science were implicitly anti-authoritarian. The senses were no longer deceptive as the Church had argued, but a relatively reliable source of positive knowledge. As a scientific explorer of the world, you were expected to prove your assertions with observable facts and replicable experiments, not intuition or inspiration. Thus was the basis laid for legitimate, not coercive, authority. This democratic science is at the heart of voluntarism and rationalism: it is our only protection against demagoguery and the exorcisms that must follow the sleep of reason.
In the English and German Terror-Gothic art that followed the French Revolution, the figures of the Wandering Jew and the femme-fatale represented the fearsome specter of revolution from below: revolutions were linked to sex, pantheism, curiosity, narcissism, androgyny, and reason (all were illicit passions). Victorian Tory Radicals and Christian Socialists identified America as the nation of Bad Jews–we were revolutionary puritans, the bearers of the most radical Enlightenment ideas. “The Hebrew Children” carried the critical spirit; they were the transgressors of the boundaries set by the old and apparently declining European élites. For extreme conservatives in this country, the American frontiersman was the type of the dangerously egalitarian and ambitious bad Jew bringing death to the paternalism of the Old World. D.H. Lawrence inspired the nativist radicals who followed when he characterized the typical American as hard, stoic, isolate, a killer: he was surely thinking of the nosy Hebrews and modern women he also complained about.
European élites did not sit idly by, then, gracefully bowing to the rising classes that would remove their privileges, but counter-attacked with all their Hearts. Their strategy was to co-opt the materialism and environmentalism of the Enlightenment: their perverse productions haunt us today and may be an obstacle to coalition-building in the 1990s. First there was scientific racism to justify expropriation of land and slavery: this countered the Judeo-Christian ideas of single creation, international brotherhood, equality, and ideas of species-unity popularized by science and commerce. As an improvement, we got polygenesis and the Aryan myth. By 1945, Franz Boas and his students in cultural anthropology had apparently made valiant progress in demolishing these vicious ideas. But Boas, along with students of Frederick Jackson Turner and the other Progressives had simultaneously supported pseudo-scientific notions of national and regional character: the doctrine of blood and soil which we usually associate with Germany, or the Southern Agrarians of the 1920s and 1930s, not 1960s America. For the ethnopluralists like Boas or Turner (both ideological descendants of the German Romantics), different racial stocks interacted with their material environments to produce unique qualities, rooted in local history, which was again, also natural history. All events were now “rooted” in a specific incomparable moment; events were unique; the past was no guide to the present in this brand of historicism. Turner’s pseudo-materialism created the intellectual foundations for much of the new social history and fashionable studies of “material culture” in academic cultural history and in museums. It sounds Marxist, but is not. (Turner explicitly vowed to promote a pseudo-materialism in the public universities to counter the growing authority of Marxism in Europe and America; see his essays in The Frontier in History, 1921.)
Similarly, Social Darwinism undermined the materialist analysis that the Enlightenment made possible. For the social Darwinists, national or regional struggle was the motor of history and was healthy and progressive, uplifting, weeding out the lower races, like the English imperialism that J.A. Hobson ambivalently criticized in 1902. Racial unity was normal; if class warfare erupted, it was the fault of Jewish finance capital: its symbol the Stock Exchange. The absentee ownership born of the Stock Exchange destroyed the warm personal relationships that were supposed to have moderated relations between master and man (Hitler’s fantasy). Meanwhile, conspiratorial and always lying Jews had seized the technology of mass media to instill greed and dissatisfaction with things as they are (The Protocols of the Elders of Zion). In America, nativist reformers argued that immigrant Polish Jews had corrupted the native American working class, convincing them that they would be exploited under capitalism, no matter what the AFL said. Antimodernists everywhere saw the Jewified city as the source of dissension; mixing races and nationalities, its bohemian inhabitants were going native to overthrow the authority of the fathers; these primitivist revolts, melting pots boiling over, were the first step in the descent to internationalism, chaos and decay.
As we know, science, technology and psychology were continually co-opted by “moderate” conservatives to control the labor force and forestall socialist transformation. John Dos Passos loved exposing the new techniques of public relations (U.S.A. is his masterpiece). From the 1920s to the present, the lower orders, as usual, were fed images of their ugliness, irrationality and incompetence. But bad Jews in movies and television did not invent this practice. Plato had insisted on the necessity of the noble lie to keep the masses in their place, but he didn’t have mass literacy and newspapers to contend with. Aristocratic radicals, writing in the tradition of Plato to stigmatize the lower-class brain, have attacked positivism and objectivity: (popular) science is but one of competing myths, they claim. As with other philosopher-kings, their wisdom and rationality in making these judgments is not contested; as David Hume asserted, moderation was hard to come by; truth and certainty were to be found, if anywhere, in the moderate point of view. And like other élite theorists in Europe and America, the moderate men have attacked all materialists pointing the way to emancipation from upper-class terrorism. The moderns and their radical liberal followers must be purged to restore normal, natural (i.e., racial) harmony, the de-centered localism they, Herder, and T.S. Eliot admired. Like earlier élite theorists and carriers of Conservative Enlightenment, then, the aristocratic radicals dismiss the possibility of excellence in democratic societies. By attacking the revolutionary bourgeoisie from the p.o.v. of the higher moderation, they have lined up with the displaced European aristocracy and can see only darkness in their future.
How have other twentieth century social movements positioned themselves with regard to the Enlightenment? First the Nazis (who have been incorrectly portrayed as romantic individualists and decadents by some conservatives): The Nazi movement, based in the ruined middle-class and longing for restoration, embraced the harmony, balance and repose of classicism and corporatism, including its supposed socialist and internationalist left-wing–the S.A. (cf. Elinor Langer). For these pseudo-aristocrats, the lower orders could be inclusively integrated into the whole; class hatred and class war would be banished forever once the Jewish irritants of finance capital and phony class analysis were removed. At long last, true love: the proletarianized German nation (abused by the Treaty of Versailles), finally united, would struggle against other racial entities for its place in the sun. Hardness would replace bourgeois sentimentality, humanitarianism, parliamentary politics, and pacifism. The steel helmet was the perfect object; the insensibility of judenrein racial purity was the key to national greatness and creativity. In fact, Nazi Prometheans would rescue the world from the Jewish, romantic, deracinating Marxist night. Albert Speer’s searchlights could have symbolized this nobly enlightened mission to pierce the mystifications of the revolutionary bourgeoisie and its upstart children. Nazism then, was the offspring of Conservative Enlightenment, not the excrescence of Romanticism that Peter Viereck and other conservatives claimed; like other relics of feudalism Nazis carried the logic of Social Darwinism to its inevitable conclusion. Jews, however, were not simply rival professionals to be beaten or expropriated, or one of many labor pools to be subjugated: they were the obstreperous, incorrigible individualists refusing to reconcile the irreconcilable; they were the sinister, softening forces of modernity making political love, not war. As Sartre famously noticed, the warring pluralities of fascist Germany could find unity only in their common enmity to the mythical Jew they had constructed.
Upper-class American Progressives and the nativist radicals (including Lewis Mumford, Van Wyck Brooks, Richard Chase, the New Left following romantic anticapitalists like Blake, the pre-Raphaelites, William Morris, etc.) have also spurned the radical Enlightenment, embracing Frederick Jackson Turner-style doctrines of blood and soil pluralism, and eschewing the radical liberals of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for theories of racial, gender, and national difference or character. Elinor Langer is writing to this audience; since they believe they are not racists, but right-on radicals, antifascists, and anti-imperialists, they cannot analyze proto-fascism in themselves. These thinkers are especially given to despair; they do not want fascism in America, but see no possibility of dialogue with the hopelessly racist white males of all classes, i.e., the frontiersmen. In fact, their discourse celebrating diversity and the multi-cultural experience resembles that of the liberal imperialists of England (knights of the Round Table), who promoted the idea of the multi-racial Empire, headed of course by the English upper-classes: the same ideology permeated the upper-class peace movement that Progressives backed after World War II (with Pacifica one of its progeny).
And what of the Old Left? For strategic reasons, Stalinists supported national liberation movements in the Third World and cultural nationalist movements in America, no matter how hierarchical and internally antidemocratic and exploitative. At Pacifica, a similar policy is displayed in the block programming initiated in the 1970s and 1980s, institutionalizing racial and gender difference, and making it difficult to confront internal antagonisms or experiences that deviated from positive images promulgated by “the community.” A heroic myth was wanted; meanwhile other white male programmers were off the hook; their sometimes sadistic humor would be balanced by fulminations from the spruced-up ghettoes sophisticated conservatives had provided for them.
And what of the Trotskyists? The Partisan Review intellectuals seemed divided over materialism and organicism; for some, it was not peculiar to be publishing the anti-Semitic and Tory T.S. Eliot, or to support Ezra Pound in the controversy that erupted after he was awarded the Bollingen Prize in 1949. Insofar as Marxists go, I feel that Rosa Luxemberg’s left-liberal style of Marxism, not Leninist vanguardism, protects the democratic promise of the Enlightenment more persuasively than any other Left tendency. (See Stephen Eric Bronner, Socialism Unbound.)
And what of the Frankfurt School: the Marxist-Freudians who emigrated to America from Germany ? Many were as élitist and organicist as the nativist radicals whose work they cited and supported, figures such as Harold Lasswell and Henry A. Murray. Adorno, Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, and Leo Lowenthal have devastatingly criticised mass media and American popular culture, seeing only thought-control and repressive tolerance (that is, Pacifica would be seen as impotent, existing only to make the system look good). Not surprisingly, their followers have rarely bestirred themselves on behalf of our radio station; why bother? And finally, there are the romantic Third-Worlders and deep ecologists. These identify with the victimized Third World and Nature, and talk of them as if they are literally abused children or pets, not to be criticized for sexism, homophobia, or other counter-Enlightenment values, objectives, and tactics.
I have been describing obstacles to communication between Pacifica programmers and the audience; it is a dismal picture. We are now the major repository of the critical spirit and mass education in America, such as it is. We alone put up the good fight against “cold war culture,” it is said. However, many of our listeners blame Western culture a.k.a. the phony liberalism of the Jews, for bringing all the ills of modernity, including fascism and ecocide to the world. I am asking them to reconsider the upper-class ideologies that have contributed to their miseducation and thus their despair; I am asking them to contextualize the quietistic religions or peasant communities they believe are the antidote to Western desirousness and angst; I am asking them to renew their commitments to inter-group and interpersonal understanding in ‘our’ radio station. This entails the continual retrieval of history, self-knowledge, the scrupulous search for truth, no-holds barred rational criticism, but always in the context of mutual respect, gentleness and patience. If we shy away from this task, we will have missed a golden opportunity to intervene in the history of our time, to make political love and to leave behind the idealizations and monsters of the past. Fascism and indiscriminate numbness are the problem: true liberalism and discriminating sensibility the solution. In this ambiguous century, who else is going to know which is which witch? [revised 10/96, 9-8-2000]
 Plato’s parable of the cave was featured in Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion (1922), but not to attack materialism. Lippmann advocated the training of an intellectual class that would specialize in fact-finding to help the reading public evaluate competing claims from management and labor in an increasingly expert-controlled society; the fact-finding function was to be separated from policy-making, Cf. Emile Zola on naturalism.