The Clare Spark Blog

October 7, 2009

Premature Ejaculations

shooting hoops 001    This blog is about the hastiness with which media pundits and bloggers rush into print with the latest scandal or portentous event, quick either to condemn or elevate persons and policies. I found this especially true of the Polanski scandal, which in my view is far more mysterious and complicated than those who quickly joined “the people” in their outrage and vindictiveness would admit. The same could be said of the polarized responses to “Obamacare,”  a subject that requires both expertise and diligence in investigating the accuracy of contending “facts” as interested parties make their public cases.

One of the reasons I went back to school after years of being in the situation of most journalists–on a deadline and on my own, without time to adequately digest and do background research, let alone examine my own feelings–was my uneasiness over the judgments I was making to an audience of working people that trusted me not to mislead them. It is also true that I was dependent on activist journalists of the Left for news and public affairs programming while I was program director at KPFK, and since I had studied primarily science as a young woman, I felt an obligation to study competing theories of history and politics after my two purges from Pacifica. For at that time (the 1970s), I traveled in entirely left-wing circles and trusted these intelligent and impressive personalities to do much of my thinking for me.

In graduate school at UCLA, I began as a rather pure Marxist (but not a Leninist), believing that it was an axiom that there was a structural antagonism between capital and labor, and that class analysis would be the primary tool in my study of culture and politics in the interwar period, also in the study of nineteenth-century reform movements. At that time (1983-93), the U.S. field in the history department seemed less interested in preparing us to do pathbreaking research that might modify or even shatter existing paradigms (the task of research scientists), than indoctrinating us in the evil deeds of white-male dominated Amerika and in supporting separatist movements that I have described in prior blogs as cultural nationalist and even protofascist. “Class” had been collapsed into “race” and “gender,” while the “cultural anthropological” approach to science was pushing a Foucauldian notion that science was indeed a plot to advance universal surveillance, and that “science is a swindle.” And there was no mention whatsoever of embedded antisemitism of the kind I have described here in nearly all of the earlier blogs, particularly in my discussions of progressivism.  Nor was there much discussion of intellectual history, particularly the history of political thought, for such fields were tainted by “elite sources”: bottoms-up history was in fashion, even though there were few records of what ordinary people were thinking and feeling. One had to rely primarily on court records or similar recondite sources, and the conclusions drawn would be collectivist, not revealing of the psychology of the forgotten men and women as individuals. Furthermore, the field was so fragmented into specialties (economic history, diplomatic history, social history, black history, women’s history, labor history, chicano history, cultural history), and it was so rooted in events on the North American continent, that it was difficult to form an overall synthesis for all of U.S. history in its global context that would help us evaluate our own limited researches that led to the dissertation.

What rescued me from impotence as an historian was my dissertation topic. Because Alexander Saxton had once been a proletarian novelist and liked Melville for his description of the work process as carried out by common sailors, I was allowed to combine history and literature while getting a history degree. It was the breadth of Herman Melville’s interests and preoccupations that led me inevitably into the study of European intellectual and political history, and later into the hitherto almost forbidden realm of conservative political theory. Moreover, before Freud, Melville, unlike most men perhaps, was examining his innermost, very powerful, feelings and exposing them and their switches to the reader.

Because Melville’s views on race were considered to be advanced for his time (1819-1891), I looked into the state of race relations and racial theory during the interwar period, especially at a turning point in estimations of Captain Ahab (1938-1939). It was this interest that led me to the voluminous papers of Ralph Bunche, housed at UCLA. As I was reading his correspondence with other black intellectuals along with his extensive memoranda to Gunnar Myrdal (for Bunche was Myrdal’s most important and informative collaborator in the writing of An American Dilemma), I noticed that there was no difference in the quality or scholarly tone of  Bunche’s writing or that of his colleagues at Howard University from that of the white intellectuals responsible for the Melville “revival.” I also remembered that I had taught many black youngsters both in Queens and in Los Angeles when I first arrived here, and there was nothing wrong with the brains of little black children in my experience.  My best chemistry student at Los Angeles High School was a black male, and until I encountered the arguments of those arguing for deep racial differences in aptitude and mentality–differences that demanded a different “race pedagogy”– I had no inkling that my view would be considered “racist” at UCLA when I criticized separatist ethnic or women’s studies programs; I thought that those histories of women and minorities  should be integrated into an overall synthesis. [Added later: I had become so accustomed to the ghetto drawl affected by black nationalists that I must have thought that I would find some deviation from standard English in the Bunche Papers.]

So if I have given much attention in prior blogs to Arne Duncan or Howard Gardner or any of the other leaders in the formulation of educational policy, contrasting them with the policies advocated by such as Charles Sumner, who in 1849 argued for school integration in Boston (see the blogs on Sumner’s writings or Margoth v. Robert E. Lee, you will understand the high priority that I place on science education. Niall Ferguson has been presenting a class at Harvard on the Western Ascendancy, 1600–present, and several reasons for the ascendancy of the West over many competing empires were the invention of the printing press and the publicizing of the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution and the power of related Enlightenment ideas, while in America, the presence of religious pluralism, high literacy (led by New England educators, including Sumner, by the way), and a Constitution that stressed the separation of Church and State, the separation of powers, and checks and balances, including the high premium placed on “liberty,” were important factors in American success. (In the description of Ferguson’s class, I blended his lectures on the West with my own application to the U.S. scene. Don’t blame him for my additions.)

So if I am wary of jumping into controversies without adequate preparation, and if I am reluctant to take sides, be warned. The scramble for celebrity, combined with the lingering effects of New Left ideology,  has corrupted journalism and the educational system. Serious intellectuals betray their readers when they ejaculate without thorough research and reflection, including the most stringent self-examination. Go back and read if you have stayed with me so far. E. Mark Cummings is wildly successful and influential in his profession, and the New York Times Book Review has noticed the book about his research written by his promoter, Bo Bronson. And don’t miss the paragraph on Freud’s essay of 1915: it is my prescription for avoiding undue optimism about social engineering (with its perfectionist Rousseauvian underpinnings that privilege “natural virtue” over civilization) and related follies. Remember Lysenko!

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