YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

August 6, 2012

Gellhorn’s “blind spot” on Israel

Caroline Moorehead

[For a related blog see https://clarespark.com/2012/06/16/the-social-history-racket/.]

According to Martha Gellhorn’s most prestigious biographer, Caroline Moorehead (a champion of “human rights”), Gellhorn, the famed war correspondent and novelist (1908-1998), was dead wrong in her enthusiasm for the Jewish state, an error that Moorehead seems fixated upon in her much lauded biography of 2003, for she does not hesitate to dilate upon her own under-researched opinions on the history of Israel and its conflict with the “Palestinians” and Israel’s neighbors.  (I have been rereading Moorehead’s biography and another feminist study of MG. It was not Moorehead, but British leftist “Rosie Boycott” who used the term “blind spot.” Moorehead does report that in time, MG came to see Israelis as “arrogant and boorish.” This was solely CM’s characterization of MG’s letter to Robert Presnell in 1967. These words not in quotation marks.)

What is perhaps most striking is that Gellhorn, who did have some Jewish ancestry, had no apparent Jewish identity until she was present at the liberation of Dachau, and was struck down by the visible presence of evil, evil of such magnitude that her prior faith in human perfectibility (inherited from her parents, especially Edna) was shot forever. Indeed, the recent HBO film (Hemingway and Gellhorn) uses archival footage of Dachau’s victims, and then affixes the face of Nicole Kidman (playing Gellhorn) upon one of the victims in the pit of corpses, suggesting that this might be some kind of awakening or turning point for MG. (In the just-issued DVD and Blue-Ray edition of the movie, this latter scene is edited out, and we see MG fleeing into the woods, instead. There will be nothing about MG’s attachment to Israel in the HBO script.)  Indeed, the Wikpedia entry on Gellhorn plays up her ancestry as German, not partly Jewish. Gellhorn herself wrote these words after visiting Gaza in 1956: “These kibbutzim are the only places I know where a daily practical effort is made to follow the teachings of Christ.” (The View From The Ground, p. 136). So much for Gellhorn’s enthusiasm for Israel (or the “half-Jewish” identity ascribed to her by the HBO movie Hemingway and Gellhorn?).

It should be noted that Moorehead has had exclusive access to Martha Gellhorn’s papers at Boston University, and hence her lengthy biography had detail and heft that was presumably denied to competing biographers. It is also true that a wandering scholar cannot go into these papers and check Moorehead’s claims for accuracy.

Now that I have finished reading this supposed tell-all biography, I do have more ammunition to complain about the HBO rendition of the Gellhorn-Hemingway marriage (the notion that MG was having great sex with Hemingway is preposterous), but important questions are raised about authors who are not scholars, but biographers soi-disant, and who use archival materials to grind their own political axes. In Moorehead’s case, we learn about matters that are only of passing relevance to those interested in the achievements of the first major female war correspondent, whose colleagues, friends, and acquaintances were among the most significant social democrats, fascists, and/or communists of her time, H. G. Wells, Bertrand de Jouvenel, Robert Capa,  Joris Ivens, Lt. General James M. Gavin, Leonard Bernstein, and Eleanor Roosevelt for just a few examples. But CM’s details do appeal to our lower instincts, for instance the reader’s voyeuristic curiosity about bad sex, affairs with married men, abortions, a rape, naked sunbathing and swimming, facelifts, friendships with other celebrities, the absence of maternal instincts, and her final exit as a suicide.

I have no doubt that Moorehead thinks of herself as a feminist, yet she trots out as many as four abortions, perhaps to undermine her subject’s credibility as a humanitarian like herself. (Moorehead wrote other biographies, for instance of Freya Stark, an Arabist, or Bertrand Russell, whose anti-Zionist views are well known.) And I wonder if Moorehead is not a Third Worlder, for she slams MG for suppressing her initial negative reaction to Chiang-Kai Shek and Madame Chiang: i.e.,  Moorehead, unlike MG,  is truly devoted to The People. (For more on this point, see my review essay https://clarespark.com/2011/06/30/links-to-review-essay-on-hemingway-spy-mission-to-china/.)

Now Moorehead could have, had she been any kind of serious intellectual, asked about the political significance of writing about the effects of 20th century wars upon civilians, using imagistic (pictorial) language, as Gellhorn was wont to do. Is there no problem with the aestheticizing of violence, as Walter Benjamin powerfully argued? Do we not end up by focusing upon the demise of Western civilization as an aesthetic experience, distanced from the horrors described, left in despair, overwhelmed by the magnitude of mass death, and launched upon a death trip?

No less than Hollywood pictures, Gellhorn was focused on violence, and put herself in harms way with such daredevil frequency, that one must ask if her restlessness and carelessness about her own safety did not have some neurotic component.  She read thrillers throughout life, CM tells us, but what was the emotional payoff for MG? Was she not striving to live up to her high-achieving parents’ expectations, and punishing them vicariously by risking her life, over and over?

After wading through 424 pages of text, I felt that I had just read a cleverly masked hatchet job. There is much of lasting significance to learn from the life of Martha Gellhorn, but this book has left a bad taste in my mouth.


July 19, 2012

Communist ideas go mainstream

Rosa Luxemburg

[This blog should be read in tandem with https://clarespark.com/2012/08/20/ernest-hemingway-carlos-baker-and-the-spanish-civil-war/.]

The most important idea in this blog: that the original Progressives wanted a regulated capitalism that would stave off the specter of red revolution. Their enemies were Gilded Age robber barons/ finance capital, but more so, a militant working class that seemed to be on the march, especially during the riotous year of 1919, but before that, in the take-off period for industrial capitalism after the Civil War. In the first eight months of 1919–in August introducing the first article publicizing the ostensibly forgotten Herman Melville (1819-1891), The Nation magazine advised its conservative readers to move sharply to the left, outflanking the Industrial Workers of the World and its evil twin the Socialist Party. Oswald Garrison Villard’s influential magazine preached “honest Anglo-Saxon populism” of the communitarian sort that such Anglo-Saxon upper-Midwesterners such as Ernest Hemingway would embody in his novels, for instance in A Farewell to Arms (where war is blamed on the upper classes, and suffered by hapless peasants), and then For Whom The Bell Tolls (1940, written shortly before EH was to be recruited by the KGB as revealed in The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, 2009, see https://clarespark.com/2012/07/09/hbo-does-gellhorn-in-red/).

Nation writers in 1919 also made a vital distinction between industrial capital and finance capital: the latter were Shylocks, while industrial capital was, by contrast, close to the earth, *suggesting the same primitivism, earthiness, and regressive use of language [childish prattle?] that Hemingway (a.k.a. “Hemingstein”) admired. They also posited mystical bonds to unite society, for they were at heart organic conservatives, hostile to anything that smacked of empiricism or “materialism.” Above all, they preached deference to gentlemanly, compassionate Anglo-Saxon experts, who, properly reconstructed, would avoid the extremes of heartless laissez-faire capitalism and communist revolution (Jew/Jacobin-led mob rule). That is why I call them the moderate men, and these moderates can be found in both political parties today, arguing for “the neutral state,” while at the same time, the moderate men are attuned to life among the lowly (see https://clarespark.com/2012/06/29/the-neutered-state/, with its bizarre notion that all conflict can be reconciled by the artful, manipulative “mediator” bringing progressive ideas of order to the “mixed-economy”).

For a detailed account of The Nation line in January-August 1919, see https://clarespark.com/2009/09/19/populism-progressivism-and-corporatist-liberalism-in-the-nation-1919/. For more on the separation of finance capital from industrial capital see https://clarespark.com/2010/09/11/is-wall-street-slaughtering-the-middle-class/.

In a more recent blog, I summarized the main ideas of Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes in their detailed summation of the Communist movement in the U.S. (See https://clarespark.com/2012/06/03/connecting-vs-connecting-the-dots/. ) As Klehr and Haynes demonstrate the heyday of American communism was the Great Depression, or as literary scholars say, the Red Decade, where virtually every important writer studied Marx and Lenin, with many joining the communist movement, though there were vicious animosities between Stalinists and Trotskyists that remain relevant today (for instance, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, between readers of The New Masses and Partisan Review). Klehr and Haynes argue that the communist movement today is weak and nearly defunct, but did not trace the infiltration of Leninist statism into the progressive movement and the New Left, though they mention several instances where New Deal strategies such as social security were first introduced by the CPUSA (but see Professor Cherny’s objection to this claim below in his lengthy comment).

Marcus Garvey

New Left developments: The civil rights movement, under infiltration by communist thinkers and organizers, quickly turned from an integrationist movement (the MLK Jr. line) to a militantly cultural nationalist movement, drawing on both the cultural pluralism introduced by earlier progressives, and the separatism advocated by avowed fascists such as Marcus Garvey (a petit-bourgeois radical and precursor to Malcolm X), or by Communists  advocating a Black Belt in the deep American South as reparations for the horrors of slavery, debt-peonage, and Jim Crow.

Schine, McCarthy, Cohn

The New Left (many of whom were readers and admirers of the anti-imperialist, anti-Zionist British Left still reeling from the 1956 revelations about Stalin) defined itself as “anti-anti-Communist,” with a great horror of McCarthy and his vile [Jewish] henchmen, Roy Cohn and G. David Schine, arguing that anticommunism was a (continued) cover for right-wing opposition to the statist New Deal, and of course that we had not “lost China” as “right-wing loons” had insisted. It was this 1960s generation that turned once again to history from the bottoms up, or social history or cultural history, histories that had already been made fashionable and appealing by 1930s progressive journalists, authors, songwriters, filmmakers, and playwrights  celebrating the Common Man/the Salt of the Earth.  See https://clarespark.com/2012/06/16/the-social-history-racket/, but also recent blogs on such figures as Edna Ferber, Oscar Hammerstein, and Martha Gellhorn. Today, NPR, the Pacifica Foundation, and academic departments of humanities  continue the populist-communitarian strain extant since the last decade of the 19th century, antisemitism and all. What a shock it must have been when Yale University Press published its series of books that delved into the briefly opened Soviet archives, revealing that Alger Hiss, the Rosenbergs, et al, were guilty of espionage after all, that Whittaker Chambers was no sociopath, and though McCarthy was a vile opportunist, he was not so far off the mark as liberals had insisted.

TIME Cover, March 8, 1954

Although in prior blogs I have made sharp distinctions between liberal anticommunists (social democrats) and hardcore communists and fascists, the statism and crypto-elitism advanced by “progressivism” have so blurred the boundaries between social democracy and full-fledged Marxist-Leninism that I cannot blame those on the Right who conflate all the variant statisms into one huge encroaching monster. Popular Front politics did not stop in 1939, but persist into the present.

*It was Nation writer Lincoln Colcord who draw a distinction between “international bankers” versus “commercial bankers”; the latter were closer to the site of production, hence would make concessions to labor, whereas the international bankers were solely involved with the extraction of profits. Cf. J. A. Hobson, also favorably cited by The Nation in this period.

June 16, 2012

The social history racket

 [Nothing in this blog should be taken as an attack on the writing of social history. What I object to is the abandonment of diplomatic and military history as “elitist,” a perverse populist move.]

I have not blogged the last several weeks because I have been immersed in the study of Ernest Hemingway and his relations with women. I have agreed to write a review of the widely seen HBO biopic Hemingway-Gellhorn (first broadcast May 28, 2012, starring Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman), and since the show elevates Martha Gellhorn above Hemingway, perhaps as some kind of feminist statement, I have been focusing on the startling arrival of the New Woman in Western culture, a development that was greeted with anguish and screams by numerous male artists, and no more insistently than in the Hemingway oeuvre. (See for example  the illustration by Edvard Munch, “Love and Pain,” widely interpreted as his “vampire” painting, unveiled in 1894.)

At the same time, I carefully studied Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War (1998). This massive history argues that it was not foreordained that Britain enter the Great War, and that it was the mishandling of the postwar economic crisis that laid the groundwork for WW2, not excessive reparations as Lord Keynes had averred in his famous Economic Consequences of the Peace. But more, Ferguson’s method is a powerful rebuke to the entire field of social history that gained legitimacy by allying itself with “the grass roots” and the suffering of “the people” victimized by the diplomatic and military elites. This nearly hegemonic move away from the “elitist” study of statesmen and their decisions, in effect, undermined any possible understanding of the causes of conflict and mass death, while pandering to a gruesome tendency of readers to get off on atrocity stories, presumably to mobilize them for either revolution or “progressive” reform. But most significantly, Ferguson reintroduced the notion of human agency, as against structural or teleological reasons alone in explaining great wars and revolutions. Things could have turned out differently, he says. Such a thought puts us on notice that we are not helpless witnesses to history.

John Collier: Lilith, 1892

When I was in graduate school, social history or cultural history were all the rage, and it was widely acknowledged that diplomatic history was tedious and passé: better to focus on the sufferings of the little people, the better to advance communist revolution, or at least progressive reform. True, we  had to rely upon court records and other non-literary sources, for common people did not always leave diaries or similar source materials, inarticulate as they were often held to be,  but that made them all the more amenable to our sympathies. What diplomatic or military history is, however, is labor intensive and demanding, for without the study of economics and finance, it is impossible to write about wars (or revolutions) at all. Not surprisingly, Niall Ferguson rapidly climbed to the top of his profession, having acquired these skills as part of his academic training,  and then applied them in books directed not only to colleagues, but to a general public.  The latter is a radical move in itself. (None of what I have written about NF implies that he is indifferent to human suffering: far from it.)

Niall Ferguson

But Ferguson is the exception. Our major historians (the ones with jobs) are too often an elevated version of the sob sister, attuned to the dreadful ways that wars affect ordinary people. Surely this was Martha Gellhorn’s strong point in her fiction and journalism. And she did it with competence and audacity, often risking her life to get to the fighting fronts where the mayhem could be seen up close and personal, and her indignation and compassion displayed.

The reason for this particular blog is to criticize the lamentable turn solely toward “compassion”  in both journalism and in academe. Are we not losing the capacity to pinpoint the causes of conflict? For instance, journalists affiliated with the Democratic Party and/or the Left are ignoring the Constitutional implications of Obama’s executive order to grant work permits to a class of young illegal aliens, a move by POTUS that is widely read by his critics to be a play for “the Hispanic vote.” Meanwhile, television news leads us to rejoice with the Latina UCLA graduate, educated at state expense, who feels a burden of anxiety magically removed. We can sing along together.

Are we more lawless than usual in 2012? Perhaps politics in America has always been corrupt, more’s the pity. Such a fine ideal, equality before the law: one set of rules for rich and poor alike. We should tell the children about it. (For more on Gellhorn’s populism see https://clarespark.com/2011/06/30/ernest-hemingway-and-gellhorn-in-china-1941-2/.)

May 26, 2011

Who is a racist now?

Antique Japanese Swords

Following are two prior blogs and a bill that is before the California legislature that would further mandate the multicultural teaching of history in California schools. It is recommended that you consult them either before or after reading this new blog.




During the early 1970s, a complaint was made to the Pacifica Foundation’s local advisory board regarding one of my collages for The Sour Apple Tree (my weekly program on the politics of culture). The complaint objected to the mocking of Asian-Americans because an actor had improvised an allegedly offensive riff on the subject of Japanese swords, which were then on exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  In my ignorance, I thought that it was bizarre to aestheticize a weapon, no matter how beautifully crafted.

But what did I know? The age of political correctness was upon us, and any organized group of angry ethnics or “races” could make trouble if the media were not relaying “positive” images of their group. Here was the triumph of “identity politics” in all its manifestations. Disappeared were the material facts and institutional structures and practices (including ideals) that made history.

The identity politics lobby, following the precepts of German Idealist epistemology, argued that language and images were constitutive of “reality” and that prior racisms and discrimination could be erased through the presentation of “strong” “role-models” in the schools and media.  Or, following the lead of earlier opponents of “prejudice,” if there was a bad person of color,there must be a good person of color in order to achieve “balance,” and as my dissertation director Alex Saxton used to say, that “good” minority group member was in league with the [fascist] ruling whites. The “bad” [black, red, or yellow] man was ipso facto someone to be admired for his defiance. Enter the criminal as hero and the romantic identification with rebels of color, the badder the better.

As I have written here before, the advent of social history in the hands of populist-progressives, the Stalinist Left and then the New Left of the 1960s, displaced from the curriculum the record of  actual decision makers of history (say the statesmen and generals studied by von Ranke), for these were now prejudice-tainted “literary sources” who covered their tracks, lying even to their personal diaries. The obvious populism of this move was not a departure from the practices of the “consciousness industry,” for it had always been directed to its mass audience, which had buttons to be pushed—class resentment, a suspicion of Wall Street and bankers, and of competing savages (including the wild man within)–and the designated monsters were standing athwart the path to upward mobility.

I have traced on this website the German Romantic influences that led progressives to adopt their collectivist lingo as part of their view that “national character” could be ascribed to every race or nation.  That this “cultural nationalism” was racialist in its very conception is not widely seen, and it now rules the anti-imperialist Left and the school curricula in California and other states.  The U.S.A., rather than being an exemplar of equality before the law, self-correction and (in its Puritan origins) republican simplicity, became conflated with the most vicious totalitarian societies or with the rigid war-crazed aristocracies of the Old World. For these racist “anti-racists”, there are no boundaries between past and present: the achievements of Freud and Einstein are supposed to shed their grace on me, but such ancestor worship does not help me master life skills. In spite of “Jewish” triumphs in psychology and physics, the rampaging White Man continues to infect and infest all “peoples of color,” and if we look very closely, we can often detect a Jewish nose, dragon claws, and a tail upon that oppressor.

March 26, 2011

Race, Class, and Gender

Alexander Saxton, ca. 1948

One Facebook friend (a neocon) has asked me to justify the current emphasis on “race, class, and gender” throughout the curriculum. He believes that the Battle of Gettysburg (i.e. military history) has been squashed in the general stampede toward relevancy. It happens that when I was program director of Pacifica’s Los Angeles radio station, KPFK-FM, I initiated a resolution that was adopted by all the other program directors and then ratified by the National Board of the Pacifica Foundation, that all programmers in our network should be responsible for educating themselves in the history of minorities, women, and labor, understanding that we were to attempt new syntheses that other, more constrained, journalists were not likely to emulate.  I did the same when I was in graduate school at UCLA, and encountered stubborn resistance to the identical resolution I proposed while representing all the graduate students in the University of California system. This blog is about what I meant, why I advanced this proposal, and how other academics and journalists have dealt with the issues I raised.

1. Why I did it in the first place. All in my generation and in the one following were deeply affected by the civil rights movement and by the turmoil on the campuses of the major universities in opposition to the Viet Nam war. Had I not been a science major, laden with mostly science classes, perhaps I would have learned something about slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow in college, but I did not. Even in graduate school, academic study of race in America was mostly centered around two debates: First, did slavery pay? And two, did slavery destroy the black family and to what extent did slaves revolt, resist, or accommodate to their condition, with lingering effects into the present? Since then (the 1980s) a massive amount of work has been done in these fields, though I have complained about black nationalism as controlling these studies, and hold to that view today, as my prior blogs have demonstrated.

Moreover, the 60s movements and the feminist movement were intertwined. I had never thought that there was anything particularly odd about the socialization of women until I read Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex in the early 1970s. I cannot count on any man to fully understand the subjugation of women unless he is particularly enlightened and has daughters (especially if he has no sons). The gay rights movement too has focused our attention on gender socialization and power between the sexes. My early socialization has not yet been repaired, to my sorrow.

2.  Race, class, and gender at UCLA Department of History in the 1980s onward.  As I have written previously on this website, the left-liberal professors with whom I studied often collapsed class into race, following the historian Edmund Morgan, who had been much affected by the 1960s movements for native American rights and civil rights in general.  With the exception of a Trotskyist professor, class struggle was no longer the engine of history, it was racial struggle that was front and center. The feminist professors were generally progressives (i.e., statists), which could mean straight-up communism or social democracy.  Even labor historians bought into the new social history, and attributed the failure of socialism in America to cultural reasons, mostly attributing its flaws to white working-class racism and/or embourgeoisment.  Although my dissertation director, Alexander Saxton, thought that “race,” unlike class, was “socially constructed,” he still wrote books about working-class racism and “the white republic.” Everyone was hostile to the “consumerism” that afflicted “mass culture.” Luckily for me, my dissertation topic was the revival of Herman Melville’s reputation between the world wars (thank you, Alex! a “proletarian novelist” in his pre-academic life), so that led me into European intellectual history and away from an obsession with heterosexual white male supremacy. I became extremely interested in the massive transformations in politics that followed the invention of the printing press and the gradual spread of mass literacy and numeracy. (See https://clarespark.com/2013/04/21/fascism-what-it-is-what-it-is-not/.) This focus emancipated me from reliance on class, race, and gender as the explanation for everything and, with a new alertness to the construction of the 20th century humanities curriculum, I soon found myself deep into the history of racial theory and the origins of multiculturalism. “Race” was indeed socially constructed, and a racialist discourse dominates cultural history today, blotting out conflicts of interest having to do with both class and gender, each of which is a material fact. (In this respect, Saxton and I were in complete agreement.)

3. Is class of any relevance? For communists and populists alike, class is everything, and whole upper-class lives may be darkened with fears of servile revolt or, in “the lower orders,” deep, roiling unfocused anger at such targets as Wall Street and the rich in general.  (Antisemitism can be found in rich and poor alike: for the wealthy, Jews are innovators and troublemakers, stirring up revolt and class hatred: Christian love is the antidote for “Jewish” hate. For the poor, Jews are often the agents of modernity that uprooted them from an idyllic, communal, agrarian past and abandoned them to the lonely crowd. )

However, no historian can ignore concrete class interests in describing continuity and change. My (male) reader who objected to “race, class, and gender” was worried about military history and diplomatic history, and I would add international relations in general. Very few individuals in any period of history are so brilliant and versatile as to be able to form a comprehensive history of even one significant event, taking all variables into account.  It is true that international relations and diplomatic history require intensive study and special training  (and even then, the fields are filled with factions that despise each other). But to deprive oneself of crucial analytic tools (i.e., class interest, views of race and national character, or gender roles and socialization in a given historical moment), is to etiolate one’s own grey matter as one undertakes the daunting task of writing history and constructing new and better syntheses. [This blog should be read in tandem with https://clarespark.com/2010/01/02/jottings-on-the-culture-wars-both-sides-are-wrong/.]

Alexander Saxton as I knew him

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