The Clare Spark Blog

July 2, 2015

Are secular societies devoid of “virtue”?

Rationalism defended by Nirmukta

Rationalism defended by Nirmukta

(This is the second of two blogs on the gay rights decision by SCOTUS this week.https://clarespark.com/2015/06/27/gay-marriage-and-what-liberty-signifies/)

I was stunned to read these lines in Dan Henninger’s weekly op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, July2, 2015: “In the North, on campuses and in sophisticated circles, we are rapidly becoming unchurched, secularized. Which raises a question: Where will a predominantly secularized society learn virtue?”

I should not have been shocked, for I am aware that WSJ, like Fox News, is run by the moderate men, whose ersatz moderation masks their organic conservatism. That is, they are not embarked on a search for truth, let alone virtue; rather, they want national unity (no matter how illusory): political stability and social cohesion above human rights and facts. (See https://clarespark.com/2013/09/17/the-illusion-of-national-unity/.)

The moderate men are thus aligned with the “ethical state,” a state that is antagonistic to the Enlightenment and its materialism and preference for individual human rights over group-think. According to these organic conservatives, mystical bonds unite warring factions, with the management of opinion-elites who scaled the Olympian heights by their discreet and mostly unseen, or deliberately hidden, stratagems.

There is no contradiction between secularism and virtue except in the minds of various hysterics. Secularism as understood by the US Constitution guarantees that there is to be no established religion.(I recall from my reading of the Federalist papers that God is mentioned only once.) This disturbs ultramontane Catholics and communists alike, for pluralism and individuality, like scientific evidence,* is damnable and a threat to aristocratic or bureaucratic leadership and their version of social control. Meanwhile, a few cranks fulfill the worst fantasies of ultraconservatives by Romantic identification with Satan, or by seeking to banish all religious artifacts from public spaces.

Such militant atheists are then deployed as weapons in the culture wars, distracting the public from pressing issues such as education reform, health reform, a high divorce rate, the real or imagined threat of climate change (a controversy that only science can solve), and foreign policy.

Here is how one Orthodox Rabbi suggested that we move on toward more pressing issues: https://www.facebook.com/RabbiShmuleyBoteach/videos/10153022077966089/.

It is my own view that the gay rights decision raises the dread specter of blurred gender identity, but that horse has already been beaten to death on this website. Artists will know what I mean.

*It is objectively true that we are interdependent with each other and with Nature.

Newton imagined by William Blake

Newton imagined by William Blake

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May 20, 2012

Kick Me Again

Peter Bregman

The Harvard Business Review has distributed this blog http://tinyurl.com/87xxvjl  by management consultant Peter Bregman, “Do You Know What You Are Feeling?” urging businessmen to get in touch with their feelings, even to confide them to persons who make them feel angry, resentful, or insecure. Bregman begins the story in a rural setting: he and his wife Eleanor are mulling over whether their yoga practice, meditation, and continued inspection of their personal feelings are merely “navel gazing.”  He then describes their differing reactions to a group of younger men on a deck, noisily partying. Bregman is delighted by the outcome of his confiding his feelings to his wife: he will not [regress] to childish clinging to a mother surrogate (Eleanor), out of jealousy or some other negative emotion, because each has “communicated” with the other.

We then learn how dangerous it is to repress anger:

[Bregman:] “Simply being able to feel is a feat in itself. We often spend considerable unconscious effort ignoring what we feel because it can be painful. Who wants to be afraid or jealous or insecure? So we stifle the feelings, argue ourselves out of them, or distract ourselves with busy work or small talk.

But just because we don’t recognize a feeling doesn’t mean it goes away. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Not feeling something guarantees that it won’t go away.

Unacknowledged feelings simmer under the surface, waiting to lunge at unsuspecting, undeserving bystanders. Your manager doesn’t answer an email, which leaves you feeling vulnerable — though you don’t acknowledge it — and then you end up yelling at an employee for something unrelated. Why? Because your anger is coiled in your body, primed, tense, aching to get out. And it’s a lot safer to yell at an employee than bring up an uncomfortable complaint with a manager.” [end, Bregman quote]

(Bregman’s image of anger as “coiled” is instructive: Is anger a coiled serpent, unseen and ready to strike, or is Bregman a jack-in-the box, his body coiled as a child’s toy that once represented a boxed devil might be? Perhaps both. In any case, Bregman’s image suggests that anger is demonic, and perhaps associated with Eve who succumbed to the serpent’s wiles. What it is not is a materialist account of the effects of cortisol on the immune system and/or the social structures and irreconcilable antagonisms that impel us to have the feelings we think we have. Hence, lacking this understanding of hierarchies and what can or cannot be said to another, we are stuck in the Middle Ages. Bregman is giving advice to a would-be Good King or Platonic Guardian, empathic with the People under his care, and alert to preventing factions that could topple his regime, reducing King to clown.)

Jack in the Box toy

In his essay on the (restored) value of navel-gazing, Bregman then switches to another scene. In the midst of one of his management talks, a woman with whom he works interrupts him, expresses dissatisfaction with his presentation and directs him into another path. He is angry at this interruption (though the revised talk goes well), and in a subsequent email exchange with the froward (not a typo) female, he communicates his hurt and vulnerability, which brings her to an apology and a happy ending to their troubling interchange. [Bregman:] And, just like that, all my anger uncoiled and slithered away.” So it was the anger-serpent after all, and Bregman’s technique of what he takes to be full disclosure has beaten the devil within.

Cole Porter Can-Can scene

I have written about touchiness and touch before on this website, see https://clarespark.com/2012/04/02/touch-me-touch-me-not/, that begins by criticizing a demagogue (Rick Santorum) who adopts the identity of his coal-mining grandfather to persuade an audience of miners that he is indeed in touch with their feelings, of which of course, he is fully aware.

I could go on and on, reflecting upon how middle management feels about subordination to CEOs or other superiors, be these government bureaucrats, school principals, legislators, party bosses, husbands, abusive, negligent parents of either gender, older siblings (but add your own authoritarian figure). Bregman imagines that the unnamed woman (presumably a member of a management team with whom he consults) is not deferring to him out of fear, but is telling the truth; she is really sincere. He has not grappled with the truism that illegitimate, irrational hierarchies breed deceit. But in the New Age in which we find ourselves, truisms, like truth itself, have gone the way of all flesh. Kick me again. (See https://clarespark.com/2009/07/13/eros-and-the-middle-manager-s-m-with-implications-for-multiculturalism/, or this one: https://clarespark.com/2010/11/18/harvards-alpha-dogs/.)

Are hierarchies inevitable? How can they be made rational? How do we know when our feelings are our own, or conversely, were they put there by other persons, acting out of their own needs to dominate, to compensate for past injuries? What a terrible thing that Freud’s materialism and family history-inflected self-examination  has been discarded in favor of New Age mysticism and the abnegation of self. And most pointedly, why do we give our love to unworthy objects, to those who “obviously don’t adore us”?

[Music outro: Cole Porter’s “I Get A Kick Out of You.” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1T6SG0t9jfQ&feature=share), or if you don’t like Ethel Merman’s tempo, try Patti LuPone: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YC12OelJYQU. The LuPone video is especially interesting: the “fabulous face” belongs first to her, and then to the audience at the end. Singer and audience become one “fabulous” entity.]

Peter Blume The Eternal City

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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