YDS: 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


February 27, 2013

“American exceptionalism” retold

american-progress-ideation2I have already compiled a list of turning points for the ascent/decline of “the West” here: https://clarespark.com/2011/10/24/turning-points-in-the-ascentdecline-of-the-west/. But the purpose of this blog is to suggest a counter-narrative for American history, warts and all. The goal is to find an approach to US history that will not leave students or your home-schooled child adrift with lifeboats offering only tendentious accounts of US history, and offering either idealized or demonized versions of the American past. (For a patriotic account by “America’s greatest writer” see https://clarespark.com/2009/09/06/the-hebraic-american-landscape-sublime-or-despotic/, or try this more recent one: https://clarespark.com/2014/02/07/herman-melville-on-the-materialist-solitary-backwoodsman/.)

In a short blog, I can outline only some major points.

First, to present a corrected version of US history, it cannot be rooted solely in America, with non-whites the hapless victims of murderous European-born whites. During the age of expansion, conflicts between France, England, Spain and the Netherlands were critical. Had Americans not expanded West, say by hugging the Atlantic coast, there might subsequently have been a jigsaw of European colonies like the map of Africa in the late 19th century and onward.

Second, westward expansion also exacerbated conflict between the industrializing North and slaveholding South. Without an economic history of these regions, US history and the politics of expansion remain incomprehensible.

Third, although ethnocentrism can be found in many cultures, racism in the U.S. directed against non-whites was a by-product* of American (and world) economic development (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethnocentrism, or http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_exceptionalism). But anti-imperialists deny that racism has been partly corrected, insisting that “institutional racism” persists despite the civil rights movement and its achievements. (I do not mean to minimize the effects of racism: see https://clarespark.com/2012/01/21/the-persistence-of-white-racism/.) Nor would the anti-Americans examine the obliteration of high Western and American culture, substituting a popular culture that is mostly primitivist. Going native is a major cause of mass psychological regression to a stage of life where “adults” are over-influenced by parental surrogates and other ideologically tainted authority. Such primitivist regression is rarely criticized by hipster democrats; by contrast, communists accept a notion of Progress that ineluctably leads to Leninist bureaucratic centralism and that demonizes ‘capitalism’/market society as an imposition by filthy lucre and their “commercial” mass media.

Fourth, infuriated by leftist critics of US imperialism (often concentrated in the blue states), some “red state” patriots argue that the warts are removed, that American self-criticism has lifted us out of the Slough of Despond, and that the concept of American exceptionalism should be rehabilitated. This is a shallow judgment, though I partly agree. Urban decay and a rotting public school system for inner city kids remains an unsolved problem, one of many, including massive waste and fraud at every level of government.

Fifth, not enough weight is given to the bounty of Nature that greeted the first European settlers, an abundance preserved by mostly hunter-gatherer Indian tribes that famously refused “development.” Much of American economic success battened off the virgin land, and we are evading real environmental problems if we imagine that the Green movement is nothing but a communist plot in all its manifestations. (See Bob Ennis’s comment below, with which I concur.)

Sixth, though some “traditionalists” on the Right prefer a view of the Constitution as divinely inspired,  we do better by our children and ourselves to celebrate cultural and political pluralism. The secular state does not signify atheism, communism, and the end of pluralism, but rather secularism is the guarantee of personal freedom and the unmatched luxury of individuality. It is in our Bill of  Rights, along with the relatively free markets that are responsible for unprecedented upward mobility and wealth creation, that “American exceptionalism” really exists.

*There used to be a debate among historians whether racism caused slavery, or whether slavery caused racism, but it is now the case that major scholars treat “racism” as an independent variable, and indeed they claim that racism is the engine of U.S. history, a flaw so terrible and omnipresent that reparations are demanded. Do not underestimate the determination and penetration of non-white cultural nationalists. See https://clarespark.com/2012/02/09/glee-goes-la-raza/, also the illustration above, which takes its cue from Diego Rivera’s Stalinist murals, with a strong dose of the Fantastic and Surrealism.

November 13, 2012

Orwell, superpatriots, and the election

(The Revised Orwell, p.204)”If one thinks of the artist as…an autonomous individual who owes nothing to society, then the golden age of the artist was the age of capitalism. He had then escaped the patron and had not yet been captured by the bureaucrat…. Yet it remains true that capitalism, which in many ways was kind to the artist and to the intellectual generally, is doomed and is not worth saving anyway. So you arrive at these two antithetical facts: (1) Society cannot be arranged for the benefit of artists; (2) without artists civilisation perishes. I have not yet seen this dilemma solved (there must be a solution), and it is not often that it is honestly discussed.” (George Orwell, in TRIBUNE, 1944). Quoted by Arthur M. Eckstein, “George Orwell’s Second Thoughts on Capitalism.”

The last month or so I have been surveying the wildly divergent postmortems on the life and writings of George Orwell, particularly those books that I have studied, Homage to Catalonia (1938), Animal Farm (1946) and his last novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). The three books are inseparable, for they reflect Orwell’s disgust, not only with Soviet Communism, but with dishonest journalists and others in the mass media, including those who produced Hollywood trash. Keep in mind that this media-centered diagnosis of capitalism run amok was very popular during the 1940s, after the Holocaust was finally publicized. That there could have been lurking antisemitism in the explanation that mass media was the demonic force allowing for the rise of Hitler was not broadly recognized.

Leftists (especially “the anti-Stalinist Left” and social democrats) read collectivist and workerist Orwell as one of them, while John Dos Passos, in his later years, lauded him as a force for individual free thought, flinging himself against crushing institutions that man himself had made. As the quote above suggests, Orwell had identified a structural conflict in capitalism that put him in a bind: the marketplace of ideas protected dissident artists like himself, but capitalism was, in his view, brutally imperialistic, fascistic and sadistic toward workers. The Orwell academic criticism is not as divergent in its politics as the Melville criticism, even though Melville, like Orwell, was a fierce opponent of what we now call “Doublethink,” hypocrisy, and lying in general. (See https://clarespark.com/2012/10/27/melville-orwell-doublethink/, or https://clarespark.com/2012/11/17/index-to-orwell-blogs/.)

For most Anglo-American critics, Orwell is a good “Socialist,” a “decent” fellow who sympathized with the troubles of the victims of imperialism, the poor and the working class in general, especially lauding the nuclear family with its contented working class husband, traditional submissive wife, and (quietly) rollicking children. But there are exceptions: not only Norman Podhoretz lauded Orwell’s keen opposition to Soviet Communism, I have found an inflammatory essay by the late professor W. Warren Wagar, who thought that Orwell had a devastating effect on postwar world culture. Like a few other Orwellians, Wagar seems to have thought that crypto-Nazi Orwell’s “dystopia” or “satire” was as much directed at the ultramontane Roman Catholic Church as it was at the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, or the mass media as managed by the still-capitalist British Labour Party. (Keep in mind that the Labour Party was not pure socialism/communism, but was a proponent of the mixed economy, and an outgrowth of 19th century liberal Protestant Christianity; it was most certainly not the “democratic socialism” or “ethical socialism” touted by Orwell scholars as the next big step in civilization. See https://clarespark.com/2011/07/16/disraelis-contribution-to-social-democracy/. )

Is the term “totalitarianism” old hat and imprecise? One feature of the “totalitarian” societies so reviled by 1940s and 1950s liberals or socialists like Orwell is hyper-nationalism and the cult of the Leader/Big Brother. The more alert historians have discarded the “totalitarian” label as a species of utopian perfectionism that was always unachievable; in my own writing I have stressed early childhood as the locus of “total control”, a conception that is misapplied to 20th century dictatorships. Similarly we might ask: Is nativism dead, as many Rightists claim? Or are there still numerous Americans who swallow the notion that America is not only the greatest, most perfect nation ever conceived, and is now happily relieved of the racism, antisemitism, and exclusionism that sullied the national past. And what do these words mean, in concrete reality?

I bring this up because I find authoritarian pronouncements in nearly all sectors of our political culture, but I would never call our country totalitarian, or even on its way to such an awful outcome. Rather, it is deeply fragmented, as it always was, often along sectional or regional lines. Some of us live within an ahistoric religious mentality (where the major conflict is between Good and Evil), while others live in the world of concrete institutions, that may be evaluated as fair, productive, and admirable, or, alternatively, deeply flawed and requiring reform. But whatever our current understanding, we take institutions one at a time, avoiding grandiose claims for the totality. My aim in this blog is to refine how we use political language. One of the bases of our authoritarian culture today is loose talk about prior regimes, including our own. There are persons among us who won’t do the labor of detailed history, but like to throw around big conceptions as part of their self-righteous ideologies; many believe in the devil and in the demonic as independent forces in history, apart from the actual structure and practices of specific institutions. It is they, I argue, who fail to criticize the notion of totalitarianism, a term that had clout in the 1940s and 1950s, but should be thrown out along with other outdated assessments of Germany, the  Soviet Union, Italy, and Spain between the wars. Peter Blume, The Eternal City

April 1, 2012

Secularism and the Affordable Care Act

I asked my FB friends what they thought the word “secular” meant, and got a number of responses suggesting that it meant one thing: atheism.

It appears that the culture wars have done their job: to most of the responders, “secular” signifies atheism, which may indicate narcissism, nihilism, and amorality to them. But in its older meaning, pre-culture wars, “secular” simply referred to matters of this world, as opposed to other-worldliness in religions that emphasized heaven and hell. But more significantly, secularism is a political science term that refers to the separation of church and state, meaning that no religion has priority over others, and that no religion is the established state religion. In the U.S. we enjoy religious pluralism. But triumphalist religions have managed to minimize the Founding Fathers’ commitment to the separation of church and state. And culture warriors such as Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, and Newt Gingrich have turned “the secularist” into the bogey man, insisting that the Constitution, like the Declaration of Independence before it, was divinely inspired, rather than the institutionalization of natural rights. But read the Federalist papers and see that Hamilton puts ultimate authority in the people, which is another word for popular sovereignty. Just as (later) in the French Revolution, power, knowledge and virtue had passed from Kings and Church to the People, who would then comprise the red specter to this very day, at least in the U.S. The U.S. Constitution was written to create a strong and effective national government, and owed its inception to epistemological materialism and to the Enlightenment. (See https://clarespark.com/2010/09/02/spinoza-as-culture-critic/.)

Alexander Hamilton was a church-goer, but to his most venomous critics he was not just a bastard-upstart, a foreigner, and a monarchist; he was a crypto-Jew, i.e., a variant of the anti-Christ. Recall that the Reformation convulsed Europe, with protestants (of many stripes) being defined as heretics by the outraged Catholic Church, who went on to purify their practice in the Counter-Reformation, a development that went on to censor such as Spinoza and other freethinkers at a time of burgeoning literacy among the lower orders.  (See Radical Enlightenment, Jonathan Israel’s 2001 book on Spinoza and censorship throughout Europe following the underground publication of his works; there is now a shorter work published in 2009 treating the Radical Enlightenment and the roots of democracy. But I view J. Israel as a social democrat and doubt that we have the same genealogy for democracy and free thought, since my vanguard includes such as Hayek, von Mises, and the Friedmans, but not Maynard Keynes.)

For decades, I have followed the academic assault on empiricism, medicine, and psychiatry (including the “historicizing” and discrediting of all of the mental health practitioners, Freudian and non-Freudian alike). Doctors do not share any one religious or non-religious orientation, but they do focus their training on healing the sick, which means studying the human body in various states of health, trauma,  and disease. Theirs is a secular profession, but one that finds itself in conflict with those religions that see sickness and health as dispensations from God, as part of God’s plan for the individual and for the world. Thus we find unresolved and perhaps unresolvable conflicts over such practices as abortion, contraception, abortifacients, embryonic stem-cell research, and assisted suicide in the terminally ill.

I find it odd that in all the publicity over the Affordable Care Act that these culture war issues have not been emphasized, yet the cost of medical care and what is covered or excluded is related to larger conflicts over appropriate professional intervention in the processes of life and death. Not surprisingly, much of the opposition to the ACA comes from the religious Right that correctly fears government-run “death panels” or other instances of rationing (see https://clarespark.com/2012/03/29/james-pagano-m-d-on-affordable-care-act/). They are not paranoid in this respect. In an ironic coalition, God-Squads and Doc-Squads may find themselves on the same side.

Illustrated: Top: Jonathan Israel, Middle: Spinoza toy; Bottom: Joel Strom DDS, organizer for www.docsquads.org.

February 25, 2012

Moral atheists?

Blake's Ancient of Days, 1794

[This blog is dedicated to my daughter Jenny, who called my attention to the missing father in the Whitney Houston death coverage. See https://clarespark.com/2012/02/13/whitneys-spectacular-demise/.] Fox News Channel is usually vigilant in exposing atheists and watching out for threatened family values and “the folks,” who may be waylaid by “secularists”; i.e., nihilists and cultural relativists. It is often imagined that feminists, like communists before them, are adherents to such destructive beliefs, beliefs that send its adherents to hell in this world and/or the next.

I noticed yesterday that one Republican operative who posts on Facebook had asked the question, “does not atheism lead to the breakdown of society”—or words to that effect. I engaged the question and realized I had the germ of an idea for a new blog.

On a recent blog (https://clarespark.com/2011/10/19/sex-without-freud/), I have noted that the “Jew” Freud was more controversial than the “Jew” Marx as I researched literary criticism and the reconstruction of the humanities curriculum between the wars. It was probably Freud’s The Future of An Illusion (1927) that was most offensive to the progressives I was studying, for Marx’s anticapitalism was not far from their own. Though many of these academics were not overtly religious and may have been agnostic or atheistic or primitivist followers of “the Greek Way,” they were strongly defending the notion of “the good father” (e.g., FDR) as “the focus of veneration.” Hence, Melville’s straying father as depicted in his “crazy” novel Pierre, or, the Ambiguities (1852) had to be defended against excessive [female, Hebraic] puritanism, while Melville himself, a covert sympathizer with Captain Ahab, had to be denounced as murderer and/or abuser of his wife and sons. (See https://clarespark.com/2011/06/12/call-me-isabel-a-reflection-on-lying/.)

[It is well known that antisemites and anti-imperialists have pictured the Hebrew God (whose name may be spoken or written only as Yahweh) as brutal, warlike, and domineering, in contrast to themselves, who walk in the steps of the gentle, peacemaking, even maternal, Christ, (or perhaps they reject all religion along with their families of origin, turning themselves into Nietzschean man-gods and goddesses). Only a selective, ahistoric, and misguided reading of the Christian Bible could support such a sharp antithesis between Jew and Christian. See https://clarespark.com/2010/11/14/the-abcs-of-antisemitism/, especially the note on Harvard historian Crane Brinton, who associated Jacobins with “Hebraic fury” and Calvinism.]

To return to my chat with the Republican operative: I argued that it was not belief in God that was decisive to a moral, law-abiding, politically engaged, creative adulthood, but rather family structure. I referred to such issues as the presence or absence of a strong, loving, protective, emotionally present father, and such relatively unstudied questions as sibling rivalry and birth order (mental health workers will know what I mean. Some economists and sociologists will strongly disagree, arguing that it is the amount of money in the family that most affects life chances for the children. I don’t know how this could be proven one way or another.).

A weak, mostly absent father, averse to domesticity and to close contact with children in their most crucial period of brain development (starting at birth but continuing through their 20s!) is more likely than not to incite cult-like behavior and nihilism in his children. Without that introjected paternal superego, we are adrift in a sea of competing ideologies, and well may seek an anchor in a repressive dictatorial father-substitute, or, as in the case of the French Revolution, we may seek direction in a vindictive mob.

As I studied misogyny in 19th century and 20th century authors, including poets, I saw frequent terror of the modern woman, a figure most notable for her switching from indulgent, constant comforter to horrifying, death-dealing witch. (https://clarespark.com/2009/10/23/murdered-by-the-mob-moral-mothers-and-symbolist-poets/).  Single mothers today are expected to be both disciplinarian and bearer of unconditional love. I wonder if this double role is not too much to expect from single mothers, indeed the double role may be the precursor to misogyny, yet some counter-culture figures, including some feminists, are not daunted by the possibility that the male-free home is not the mark of progress they imagine. Is it not likely that “the kids are not all right?”

July 16, 2011

Disraeli’s contribution to social democracy

One of the chief tactics of populists and progressives is to depict themselves as persons of the “grass roots”; as spokesmen for the common man and woman against “the money power.”

And [hook-nosed] moneybags are held by the populist-progressives to control all information in the society, with the exception of underground messaging and alternative media. The internet has only facilitated such carelessness and populists can be found on both the right and the left of the political spectrum. I have found them to be haters and uninterested in the histories they claim to depict with accuracy, deluded into the belief that they are correcting the “propaganda” generated by serious students of the past. There is money in it, as the book sales figures or viewers of some “traditionalist” conservative stars can attest. This blog seeks to correct a common misconception I have found in the ranks of some who deem themselves conservatives: that Rousseau* generated the Jacobins, and that a straight line can be drawn between the furious mob behavior in the Reign of Terror and the Democratic or even moderate Republican (“RINO”) opposition.  And the enemy is “secularism, ” redefined to signify atheism, a.k.a., worship of the Goddess of Reason, rather than religious pluralism and the separation of church and state.

As everything on this website will attest, populism and progressivism did not spring, fully-formed, from the industrial working class, or small farmers, or any other sector of the population de-skilled or otherwise harmed by the industrial revolution and the concentration of ownership in corporations. Rather, its ideology was largely cooked up by those European intellectuals who identified with a threatened aristocracy, and who wrote copiously in order to persuade a frivolous and conspicuously consuming class of lords and ladies, princes and kings, that they had better unite with The People against the “laissez-faire” industrial bourgeoisie that was the chief cause of lower-class suffering with the advent of science, the machine age, utilitarianism, railroads, the Higher Criticism of the Bible, and of course, Darwinism.

With a renewed devotion to “religion” (now seen as instrument of social control for all classes) the aristocracy would mend its ways, reverting to the gentle paternalism that was believed to have existed in the Middle Ages, and the new education-hungry working-class would settle for those reforms that did not threaten the social order as it had existed before mad scientists and engineers made the scene. The lower orders would be treated to lots and lots of spectacles and costume parties.

Benjamin Disraeli, a prolific author before he entered the British parliament, later to become Prime Minister and the Earl of Beaconsfield, wrote novels all his life, but the group of novels relevant to this posting was published in the mid-1840s, and meant to introduce “The New Generation” that would represent “Young England.”  Coningsby, Sybil, or the Two Nations, and Tancred, or the New Crusade,** were a trilogy intended to instruct Europe as to the chaos that was to be generated by the new industrial poor, whether they be slaves to the machine or miners–unless they were rescued by an enlightened and progressive aristocracy. Sybil, in particular, sounded the tocsin, and appeared the same year, 1845, as did Engels’ famous book on the condition of the working class in Manchester. Disraeli’s father, Isaac D’Israeli, never renounced Judaism, but did baptize all his children into the Church of England, home of the Elizabethan Compromise.

What Disraeli accomplished was to provide the moderate conservative alternative to the red specter that was haunting Europe. The Good King would represent the People against all forces of dissolution, and all would be self-sacrificing as their model, Jesus Christ, had been. Without faith, there could be no sense of duty, and everyone was bound by duty and those rights that kept the peasantry prosperous, and the male working class not exhausted or forced to compete with female and child labor.

Sybil with book

Disraeli was hardly alone in his prescriptions for a measured progress, with his religious model apostolic Christianity and the “reverence” it embodied. He was writing in the tradition of Hume and Burke, of the German Romantics (including Herder and Goethe). His contemporaries, such as hero-worshipping Carlyle and the Christian Socialists, and later Bismarck, would echo the same tradition of conservative reform, staving off excess of every kind, whether it be upper-class selfishness (“individualism” or “puritanism”) or lower-class licentiousness and excessive interest in the heroism of some Old Testament figures (see Kingsley’s Alton Locke, a founding document of Christian Socialism, puported to be the confession of an ex-Chartist, now dying of consumption).

Populism is inconceivable without hero-worship and the obeisance to opinion leaders, stand-ins today for the Good King imagined by Disraeli. In the populist appeal to emotions (“compassion”) and false utopias, rather than to careful analysis of policy, the notion of a democratic republic is subverted beyond recognition, wherever it may be found, on the left or right. Class warfare, wielded cynically by some Democrats, works, for populists hate capitalism/the money power. That is “the way we live now.”

*See image from Columbia Today (Alumni Magazine responding to 1968 student strike): https://clarespark.com/2010/07/04/rousseau-amidst-primitive-columbia-student-strikers/.

** See cartoon and description of Tancred in Arab News: http://www.arabnewsblog.net/2011/05/11/tabsir-redux-tancred-or-the-new-crusade/. The blurb author misses the point of Disraeli’s trilogy: to relocate the fount of Christianity in Jerusalem rather than Rome. Disraeli seems to have reconciled his Judaic ancestors with Christianity by finding heroism, honor, and direct communication with the Deity in the Middle East. What this may hint about relations with his father is speculation on my part. He does mention “theocratic equality” in Tancred, which suggests that equality is defined in religious terms, not material ones (those of the working poor who rise in the class system are tamed through deference and self-control), and that an established religion is the major source of social solidarity.

With respect to his relations with Judaism, his move was simply to stress the Judaic origins of Christianity, thus knocking out the antithesis between Good Christian and Evil Jew and making Jerusalem and environs the cradle of civilization. I don’t know if he was the first to do this, but it was certainly an obsessive theme. In Tancred, he complains bitterly about antisemitism, and lets none of his characters off the hook. It is unfortunate that in the process, he cleaved to contemporary notions of race and national character.

It is also interesting that his orientalist hero, Tancred, Lord Montecute, is prevented at the last minute from marrying the gorgeous Jewess Eva. In the last sentence we discover that his parents have come to Jerusalem to get him away from all those too rich, brilliant, and irresistible  Jews. There is also a hint that momma’s puritanism may have driven Tancred to excessive religiosity and the pilgrimage to Jerusalem/Syria, where any sensitive, shy fellow would have gone off the deep end, faced with all that glamor. As for Sidonia, a character sometimes identified with a Rothschild or even with Disraeli himself, Sidonia is wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice, and the model man of the world, brilliant and a linguist, but he lacks a heart: Sidonia is incapable of emotional attachments–he is a rootless cosmopolitan, the very embodiment of THE MONEY POWER, as drawn by the would-be aristocratic anticapitalist, Benjamin Disraeli.

June 2, 2011

The Mass Culture Problem

There is a Humanities-Net list devoted to the period between 1918-1945 that has been discussing modernity, mass culture, and assimilation. For some, “nativists” are viewed as perpetrators of racism.  I started a glossary to see if we could come to agreement on the terms we used in debating this premise.

Public library luring readers with Captain Ahab "sea food"

Modernity: some  scholars start it with the age of expansion. I see modernity as starting with the Reformation, nascent capitalism in England on the land and then in finance, the invention of the printing press and growing mass literacy and numeracy, the Scientific Revolution, then the  speedup in industrialization, long distance transportation, and the settling of great cities in the West. Other scholars prefer to start with expansionism/imperialism alone. When the postmodernists seemingly burst upon the scene, I noted that there was little agreement about when modernism began or ended. Some seemed to be irrationalists echoing the
widespread horror at the casualties of the Great War.

Racism: Recent scholars have frequently erased “class” by collapsing it into “race” or “ethnicity.” Scientific racism and the intertwined notion of national character is best traced to the German Romantics of the late 18th century, following Herder. I blogged about the latter and others here:

also https://clarespark.com/2010/04/08/racism-modernity-modernism/.

Race” as a concept that predicts mental and other psychological characteristics was challenged in the mid-1930s, as was “ethnicity” insofar as these were held to be predictors of character, as opposed to physical variations within one species. It is my view that “antiracists”today use a racialist discourse while disavowing “racism.”

Assimilation:  the Left in general interprets this as adjusting to ugly nativism, and the nativists are supposedly chauvinistic believers in “American exceptionalism” by which they supposedly agree that America is the greatest country in the history of the world, based upon American military power. It is my view that assimilation in America requires no more than learning the customary language and obeying the laws of the land, by which I mean internalizing the novel idea of equality before the law and limited government. (It is true that the quietism of immigrant ancestors may cause rifts in families.)  As for “American exceptionalism” it once referred to “careers open to the talents” as opposed to a rigid class and caste society. America, lacking a hereditary aristocracy, was the land of upward mobility for all, and after the civil rights movement and the laws that followed, such mobility was offered to the descendants of slaves and even women.

Secularism: many cultural historians characterize the modern world as primarily “secular”.  This term is hotly contested in the culture wars.  “Traditionalists” abhor “secularists” who, they believe, have opened the flood gates of diabolism, degeneracy and every type of “unrest.”  The traditionalists insist that no separation between Church and State was intended by the Founding Fathers, who believed in America’s Providential mission. It is my position that religious and intellectual pluralism were institutionalized in the First Amendment to the Constitution. The culture war positions point to the unfinished revolutions, about which I wrote here:  https://clarespark.com/2009/07/04/unfinished-revolutions-and-contested-notions-of-identity/.

Organic conservatives:  These persons tend to reject the “anomie” of the modern world, also the notion of irreconcilable conflicts between persons,  nation-states, religions, and so on. They prefer social models, either state-imposed or religious, that unite warring factions or individuals through mystical bonds, not congruent material interests. Examples are the Catholic essayists de Maistre and  Bonald after the French Revolution.  But many of the corporatist liberals (i.e., conservative reformers of the New Deal) also posit mystical bonds of blood and soil. Here are to be found the ethnic nationalists and some regionalists.

Organic conservatives may be found throughout the political spectrum. They are not to be confused with libertarians, who tend to be materialists, and expect competing (free) markets to produce social well-being and a rising standard of living for all. The dread homo economicus is described here: https://clarespark.com/2009/10/10/ralph-bunche-and-the-jewish-problem/.

Mass Culture: This is a term much used by the Frankfurt School critical theorists, who, as I have shown elsewhere on this website, attribute Hitler’s appeal to “the revolt of the masses” in tandem with the one-sidedness of an increasingly technological society and a Kafka-esque bureaucracy. They blame the Enlightenment for the Holocaust. I reject both their counter-Enlightenment views and their explanation for the rise of Hitler, which is a culturalist one only, and is historically inadequate to explain such a multi-faceted phenomenon. Modernity and “consumerism” are seen by the critical theorists (Frankfurters) as bourgeoisifying a social class that should be transcending capitalism and bringing in a form of libertarian socialism. These refugees from Germany were linked to left-liberals who themselves did sykewar for the Roosevelt administration and its social psychologist allies. There is a related category: mass politics, which signifies the type of log cabin politics initiated by the administration of Andrew Jackson. Mass politics are said by left-wing academics to have replaced “the politics of deference” and the rule of the best families. Hence the novel catering to “public opinion” in our political culture, and the fascination with propaganda as the primary mover of political choice.

[Added 6-3-11:] Don’t miss the two interesting comments by CatoRenasci below. Read #3 first, then #1.

July 31, 2009

More On The ABCs of Staying Alive and Preserving The Planet

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Simon Schaffer of Cambridge U.

I. Life is just a bunch of stories, or so sayeth some high-achieving men who were or are close to me: all “narratives” are idiosyncratic to individuals or groups, they believe(d). In the case of one trendy political scientist, his anti-science, irrationalist world view proved fatal, and he was dead at 64. Another friend/mentor was dead at age 55. Both men were academic stars whose careerist allegiance to anti-medical, anti-science views deprived them of the accumulated knowledge of medicine and hygiene, much of it achieved despite centuries of persecution by those reactionaries who are now sometimes called “traditionalists.” Postmodernists and multiculturalists would agree with my prematurely deceased ex-lovers, but few public intellectuals today seem interested in tracking down the sources of their quack belief systems, despite their professed love for “nature” and the preservation of the natural world. For them, science is “essentially a swindle” [Simon Schaffer, declared in a UCLA seminar that I audited] and cannot help us think and test our way out of the ecological catastrophe that they fear, for science and technology are the culprits who must be overcome.

I have written elsewhere on this site how the rule of law, the very foundation of what we call “civilization,” is undermined by such assaults on facts or the ranking of historical narratives so that the ordinary citizen has a basis for judging the worth and validity of contending “stories.” It is to me unbelievable that I have had to write of such basic conceptions in political and social theory as I have done over the last few decades, but such is the almost incomprehensible deterioration of our shared culture since at least the second world war, a dumbing down that was exacerbated during the 1960s counter-culture, that I find myself having to remind readers of historical developments, conflicts, and methods of investigation that they should have thought about and mastered in high school and college. So please bear with me, those of you for whom these arguments are old hat, or a not-so-fresh bowl of cherries.

I am arguing here for an ever-evolving but deepening objectivity as we contemplate conflict. To be sure, we experience the world through lenses that are often distorted by those ideologies or unhealthy family relationships that formed our personal subjectivities. But it is our life task as would-be enlightened and progressive liberals to reconstruct over time just how our personal stories or narratives wired our brains in a particular way, so that we are predisposed either to love or hate or feel indifference to those individuals, groups, and principles that compete for our attention and loyalty. To be less abstract, consider the case of the child caught in the middle between divorcing parents. Each party to the conflict, say mom and dad, has a different story about the cause(s) of the breakup and the character of the other parent, and the bewildered young child who does not, cannot at this stage of life (for s/he is dependent on a unified family for protection), favor one parent over the other, may throw up his or her hands and state, over and over, “there are only stories: there is no truth. I cannot bear the thought that one of my beloved parents is lying to me, or is a flawed person in any way.” In adulthood, that grown (but emotionally stuck) child of a messy divorce may embrace what is now called postmodernism, that is the radical subjectivism or “perspectivism” that permeates the humanities: it is argued in our “elitist liberal” schools that there is no universal truth, no compelling universal moral order, but that there are only points of view, and we should not intervene to establish which stories are in accord with facts or correct conduct, for now all “facts” are factoids, or are observations entirely dependent on context and the will to control wealth and hence those groups said to be oppressed. As for bourgeois “morality” (a.k.a. the rule of law, often blamed on Jewish “legalism”) it is a confidence game contrived by the rising middle-class (the modernists) to displace libertine monarchs, and it is the job of the postmodernist to rip off the mask of the new oppressors. Take that, Thomas Jefferson, you sanctimonious hypocrite!

II. Secularists versus traditionalists. Assimilation and its complications. The melting pot and its vicissitudes.
I watch Fox News Channel to see what Catholic rightists are dispensing to their populist supporters. O’Reilly and Hannity in particular are indignant with “secular progressives” who are destroying “traditionalism.” It seems to be a replay of the Reformation-Counter-Reformation argument (see https://clarespark.com/2009/07/04/unfinished-revolutions-and-contested-notions-of-identity/). For these spokesmen for the conservative movement, “secularism” has changed its meaning from what I once understood it to be; i.e., for the popular Fox pundits, secularists are now atheistic heretics (archetypally Hebraic/Protestant) out to destroy all religion, the better to enslave the credulous masses with materialism, the masses being “the folks” for whom these pundits purport to speak. But this was not the meaning of “secular” as I have understood it. Secularism was that Enlightenment pluralism that prevented the establishment of a state religion, and it was another term for tolerance—including toleration for the non-believer. It was a brilliant innovation in government that aimed to prevent wars of religion as had convulsed Europe with huge consequences for subsequent history, for instance, in the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). And secularism also signifies the “worldliness” also blamed on “the Jews” and their refusal of Christ and the promised eternal afterlife.

In one of my essays posted here (“Why Multiculturalists and Wilsonians Can’t Diagnose the New Antisemitism” https://clarespark.com/2009/07/11/multiculturalists-and-wilsonians-cant-diagnose-the-new-antisemitism/) I mention the conditions of assimilation for a certain group of upwardly mobile Jews, who may have felt that they had to conform to all the precepts of Christianity in order to find acceptance and earn a fine living. Since the “traditionalists” are dead set against liberalism tout court, (all the while defending “liberty” or “free will” and the God-loving Founding Fathers) I should explain my position, especially as what I found in my research on the origins of multiculturalism is relevant to this nation of immigrants and the descendants of slaves, many of whom as “cultural nationalists” and “anti-imperialists” now refuse “assimilation.” The turn to “culturalism” as a substitute for a scientific education, and yet, an education that would oppose racism (racism being a well-known feature of Nazi ideology), occurred during the Roosevelt administration, and here below is a revealing document that is conscious of the difficulties in adapting to the secular state—a liberal state that demands critical analysis of its operations by all its voters (blame Jefferson and the Enlightenment for this).

[Mordecai Grossman, “The Schools Fight Prejudice,” Commentary, Nov. 1945:] “To many school people and laymen, prevailing widespread intergroup antagonisms with their tensions and outbreaks, like the recent school strikes and riots, testify to the school’s failure to date to communicate America’s democratic heritage.

The intercultural education movement [begun with the New Deal Bureau for Intercultural Education, 1935] in which many teachers, schools and national organizations of teachers…are now joined, is based on two principal assumptions: first, that prejudices are culturally transmitted rather than biologically inherited, and second, that the school can, by one method or another, contribute significantly to the transformation of self-enclosed, mutually exclusive and hate-breeding cultures into open, interplaying and cooperating cultures. We have here a reaffirmation of the faith in education as a force for human progress and in the schools as the principal instrument of education in democratic ideals.
A democratic way of life…is one which seeks to provide every individual with the maximum possible opportunity for personal growth and community service, for sharing in the control over the economic, political, and social conditions of group life, and for mastery over his own destiny–for all individuals regardless of race, creed, or ancestry.
However, inter-individual (man-to-man) democracy is…only one aspect of the democratic way of life. The other is intercultural democracy [that] occupies a somewhat intermediate position between the ideals of “cultural pluralism” and of the “melting pot.” In contrast with the former, intercultural democracy denies both the possibility and the desirability of maintaining fairly intact the ancestral cultures of the varied ethnic groups that came here. But it also denies the possibility and desirability of stamping the 140,000,000 Americans in the mold of a uniform dominant culture–of a “melting pot” Americanism. For a democratic culture is an open culture, continually growing through individual and group interaction. Advocates of intercultural education recognize the survival of elements of old world culture in the new. Such elements of the old world heritage that are at odds with a democratic way of life are to be eliminated. But there are others which do not impede the growth of a common democratic culture, and which may even enrich it. These are to be retained…(35). [The Program:]…to contrast democracy with rival ways of life, say fascism…The thick walls which separate the social and ethnic groups in American society consist in large part of the stereotyped pictures that members of the “in” group have in their minds of individuals in the “out” group…[We must study] the tricks the human mind plays on itself, including those of “rationalization,” “projection,” and “scapegoating,” and which others play on us by means of propaganda techniques, etc.(37, 38)…[T]here is the risk that the gains likely to accrue from the school’s attempt to develop an appreciation of the sub-culture will be nullified by the possible heightening of the sense of difference. Much depends on the way the intercultural program is administered (42).”

All of postwar pedagogy fits into this impossible dream, a scheme to be realized by an artful administrator. But Grossman has distorted the meaning of “the melting pot” as it was previously understood and bodied forth in Israel Zangwill’s famous play of 1908. For Zangwill and his predecessors (including de Crèvecoeur and Jefferson), a new man would be created out of the religious and ethnic mix unique to America, and this rights-endowed individual new man and woman would be fit to judge their elected government representatives with the critical tools of the Enlightenment: analysis of propaganda and access to primary source documents, ending the monopoly of rulers whose affairs were conducted far from the public eye. By misreporting the culturally syncretic “melting pot,” Grossman was left with the cultural pluralism he was presumably replacing with a vaguely defined “intercultural democracy.” There are no autonomous free-standing individuals in his model, only interactive entities. Since he was actually reversing the Enlightenment by replacing individuals with groups (today we would say “community” as a substitute for the group and a corrective to hyper-individualistic loose cannons of all types),  he resorted to the contrast of “democracy” with “fascism,” all the while ignoring the statism and destruction of the dissenting individual that was common to both ideologies. And of course he underestimated the grip that authoritarian ideologies and ancestor-worship maintained in the offspring of his would-be democrats.

As I have argued in all my recent outpourings here, in my articles on History News Network, and in my book on the Melville Revival, the necessity of group cohesion (or “consensus”) trumped the critical processes that make a rational democracy possible, and here in Grossman’s well-meaning but irrational policy statement was only one example of a flood of crazy-making institutional practices from the late 1930s on, although the stage had been set from the Reformation and the invention of the printing press onward. Stay tuned.

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