The Clare Spark Blog

September 17, 2013

The Illusion of National Unity

Max Beckmann paints Paris 1931

Max Beckmann paints Paris 1931

In this brief blog I will address those still potent divisions that the “turn to culturalism” has masked. I will, as usual, reject the inheritance of the “organic nation,” or the misnamed cultural pluralism that goes by the name of “multiculturalism,” as well as such terms as “national identity,” “group identity” or “zeitgeist.” All these terms are the effluents of German Romanticism, or the “Aufklärung” as it is misleading named. The German” Enlightenment” is a misnomer for it asserted itself against the all-too “bourgeois” “mechanical materialism” of the French and English Enlightenments.

No one with even a passing knowledge of US history can imagine that we are a unified entity unless they are chauvinists who revel in the notion of American superpower status, as opposed to celebrating the good sense embodied in the American Constitution, with its checks and balances, separation of powers, and frankly materialistic approach to conflict (see the Federalist Papers that made almost no mention of “God.”) Nor did the framers of that Constitution have any illusions about human nature. Federalist #10 made the conflict between creditors and debtors clear enough, and the Left loves to cite Madison’s contribution as proof that capitalism is elitist and opposed to the interests of the common man; that the Constitution is an elitist document). What are the real divisions that complicate the controversies swirling around us and that are masked by “culturalism” and its rhetoric?

Besides the ongoing structural conflict between creditors and debtors that often takes the form of populism, already mentioned, First, there is not a [jewified] communist party versus a capitalist party, as some on the Far Right would have it. Two capitalist parties confront one another, with differing strategies for wealth creation: one generally looks to state-imposed Keynesian demand-stimulus economic remedies for economic downturns, while those Republicans who are not overly indebted to “progressives” look to free markets and supply-side economics. (For living economists exemplifying the latter, see Larry Lindsey’s latest book, or the op-ed in the Wall Street Journal 9-17-13 by Martin Feldstein.) The fact that Keynesians may be found in both parties owing to the bipartisan origins of progressivism, complicates the picture.

Second, there is a strong argument for the South having won the peace through the popularity of the paternalistic organic society that Southerners asserted as superior to the “wage-slavery” of the urbanized, capitalist, puritan North.

Gemeinschaft beat out Gesellschaft during successive phases of the progressive movement, culminating in the New Deal, hence the collectivist vocabulary that may be found in advertising and political speeches. Ayn Rand railed against this, to little avail. She was preceded in the 19th century by the antislavery Senator from Massachusetts, the descendant of Puritans: Charles Sumner.

Thus we have an ongoing conflict between the country and the city, with many protest movements flavored by agrarianism and nostalgia for the allegedly neighborly and unified small town (compare to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, 1919). Sumner took liberal nationalism to mean a government that protected the rights of individuals as opposed to collective entities. For this (along with Sumner’s proposals for “Radical Reconstruction”) Sumner has been read out of the canon of great Americans until very recently.

Third, anyone who thinks that the Reformation was settled long ago, and that there is no deeply rooted religious conflict today is uneducated about the history of immigration and of religiously defined conflict in general. Sectarian divisions within and between the major religions impinge on all the other conflicts. I could go on, but won’t, for too long a blog would emerge. I will mention, however, the omnipresent sentimentality of our popular culture, whether this is reflected in the worship of “romantic love,” “the happy family,” “the community,” adorable babies, or pets–all attempts to find internal unity in divided selves. Community-and-Society It is difficult to navigate oneself politically through all these intertwined conflicts. But it would be true progress to admit that they exist. On Toennies see

August 14, 2011

Review: In The Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

Martha Dodd

Read this first:  Janet Maslin review.

Erik Larson deserves praise for writing a popular book, enhanced by diligent archival research, that does not evade the prevalence of antisemitism in 1930s WASP America, including the State Department and, to a lesser degree, in the family of William E. Dodd, an academic historian who was appointed to be ambassador to Germany in 1933. Not atypically, all were attuned to the notion that there was a “Jewish problem.” What was that “problem”? After the emancipation of German Jews in the 19th century, many Germans of Jewish extraction had attained positions of influence in finance, science, and the professions, far more than their percentage of the population would warrant, according to their competitors.  The notion of  disproportionate Jewish power as a disagreeable feature of modernity  is current even today, and can be found in respectable circles across the political spectrum and amongst persons who do not consider themselves anti-Semites. See for instance an exhaustively documented book by UC Santa Barbara professor Albert S. Lindemann, Esau’s Tears: The Rise of the Jews and Modern Anti-Semitism (Cambridge UP, 1997). (See also my blog And along these lines, it is obvious that some supporters of Israel  have been interested in ridding their countries of their own “Jewish problems.” (See Larson, p. 235, on the U.S. State Department project to relocate Jews, a project launched by the League of Nations. Ralph Bunche found an identical attitude among members of the UNSCOP group who visited Palestine in 1947.)

The fact that Roosevelt appointed Hugh R. Wilson* as ambassador to succeed Dodd, an even more pro-German enemy of the “Jewish-controlled press”  than the Jeffersonian democrat William E. Dodd had been initially (p.355), is shocking, given that Dodd, attracted to the Germany of Goethe and Beethoven, had finally exposed to his superiors the terroristic character of the Nazi regime to Roosevelt, especially after he witnessed the treatment of Franz von Papen as the regime turned to consolidate power by purging its militantly left-wing populist SA in the Night of the Long Knives, June 30, 1934, an event that serves as the emotional climax of the book.

Also, Larson partly explores the role of conservative nationalists such as Paul von Hindenburg, Franz von Papen and Hjalmar Schact in putting the supposedly manageable Hitler in power [in order to destroy the growing German Communist Party, C.S.]—many persons, unfamiliar with the history of the Third Reich, still believe that Hitler was elected by a democratic majority. The Nazi enablers are not necessarily familiar to the broad reading public. (Robert Wistrich had written about the conservative nationalist-Nazi coalition for a popular audience in Hitler’s Apocalypse, 1985.)

In the 1930s, numerous journalists saw that the conservatives’s “tool” Hitler was a wild man who would turn on his anti-Weimar, anticommunist patrons,  but after the war a different narrative displaced it, facilitated by allies of the Roosevelt administration, as I have shown in numerous website blogs.  Namely that Hitler, the crazed, failed artist and thug, had mesmerized the normally sensible and advanced Germans through the deployment of propaganda, spectacle, and mass media.  What these propagandists had done was to deploy the “revolt of the masses” theme that had scared European aristocrats for centuries, but especially after the French Revolution. It should be noted that the Frankfurt School of critical theorists lined up with such social psychologists as Henry A. Murray, Harold Lasswell, and Talcott Parsons. (See blog It should also be noted that German intellectuals fought bitterly over whether the Nazi era was a deviation from German history or, conversely, if was significantly continuous with German politics and culture– the so-called Sonderweg debates in 1986. It appears that Larson’s book, by featuring Dodd’s disillusionment with Germany, 1933-37, lines up with mainstream American sociology that continues to emphasize Hitler’s otherness and outsider status, even his possible Jewish blood (see

But there are also deficiencies in this otherwise informative and fascinating book: Larson is keen to contrast the frugal, gentle, almost simple-minded Jeffersonian agrarian, Dodd, leader of “an American family” (as the subtitle tells us) with his extravagant, careless, unwary colleagues in the State Department, who are more concerned about German failures to pay interest to  American bondholders than they are about the growth of the terror state. The latter diplomats, as shills for big business, the money power, and WASP exclusiveness, making their continuing brutal remarks about Dodd (in their eyes, the lower-class, incompetent, cheapskate), shade into the savagery of the Nazis. I wonder if Dodd’s change of heart was partly owing to a personal identification with persecuted Jews, rather than a thought-out reversal of his earlier attitudes toward problematic Jewish power? Moreover,  other Jeffersonian democrats (Ezra Pound for instance) could also line up with Nazis during WW2. (See my blog: for Dodd’s early support of the German Karl Lamprecht, a diagnostician of the mental illness caused by cities and speedy urban life. Or see for influential  American literary critics who published in the pro-Fascist American Review, that was strongly Southern agrarian in its overall ideology).

Perhaps Dodd’s initial appointment reflects an agrarian outlook in Roosevelt, and echoed by Larson. Defending Dodd from columnist Drew Pearson’s judgment that Dodd was a failure, Larson writes “[Dodd] had spent the better part of four years seeking to fulfill Roosevelt’s mandate to serve as a model of American values and believed he had done as well as any man could have been expected to do, given the strange, irrational, and brutal nature of Hitler’s government “(p.342).  Can American society be said to be the exact, entirely rational antithesis of Nazi Germany? Was there no cult of the Leader in the U.S. at that time, were there no supporters of “the new Germany” in the Ivy League and elsewhere? Were irrational methods of mass persuasion not being advocated by influential social psychologists even at Harvard? Indeed, were not important progressives consciously copying Nazi methods of mind-management?  (See; also

Overall, the projects of the book seem to encompass two major themes: 1. a rehabilitation of quasi-medieval agrarianism, for instance in this startling remark referring to Dodd’s longing to complete his book on the Old South, described by Larson as a “more chivalrous age.” (333). Or see the lengthy quote from Papen’s speech that got him into trouble with the regime: “ The Government is well aware of the selfishness, the lack of principle, the insincerity, the unchivalrous behavior, the arrogance which is on the increase under the guise of the German revolution.” (p.284) The latter characteristics listed by Papen are typically applied to capitalists and to Jews, with the latter often believed to have been the chief beneficiaries of modernity and urbanization. Larson should have picked up on this well-known set of tropes.

2. There is a hint of Wilsonian and Rooseveltian international cooperation (e.g. the UN) as the solution to subsequent hyper-nationalism. Larson quotes Dodd’s farewell speech to the American Chamber of Commerce in Berlin: “The world must face the sad fact that in an age where international cooperation should be the keyword, nations are farther apart than ever.” (p.349)

I have one more reservation about what is otherwise a gripping and original book.  By downplaying the transformation of Martha Dodd from Nazi sympathizer to convinced Communist, Larson does not sufficiently enlighten his readers as to the structural similarities between Nazism and Communism, e.g. the utopian authoritarian statism common to both societies, not to speak of less dramatic but nevertheless protofascist tendencies in the New Deal. There is much more to be gleaned from the materials produced by Dodd’s daughter Martha, whose sexual adventures (along with graphic Nazi violence) may provide much of the popular appeal of Larson’s book, a slant that is introduced in the subtitle of the book, “…Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin.”

*The only relevant source on the internet that I have found so far for Hugh R. Wilson is here, an informative letter to FDR: Wilson’s papers are located at the Hoover Institution.

June 9, 2011

When did “modernism” begin?

Ze’ev Sternhell

[This is an updated comment I once made on the Melville discussion group “Ishmail” in 2003. It reflects my reading at the time.]

First, was “modernism” as an art movement, modern, or was modernism a revolt against “feminized” Victorian culture/liberalism and rationalism, an entity that is for me the very model of modernity? Roger Sandall, a conservative anthropologist, sees the lot of modernists as romantic primitivists and a bad thing that influenced recent trends in the humanities (postmodernism). I have no doubt that the irrationalists Sandall excoriated were terrified of modern women. [Update: I should have mentioned the invention of the printing press as the beginning of modernism, but was not aware of this dating until I started noticing how “liberals” attacked autodidacts as assassins in the late 1990s. This became a major theme of my book on the Melville Revival (2001).]

Second, were 1930s cultural figures who expressed vicious statements about “the Jews” and their baleful influence in bringing about the transformations generally called modernity (but not always), also opponents of artistic modernism? I think that (leftist) Ze’ev Sternhell’s book Neither Left Nor Right: Fascist Ideology in France treats the problem in France and Italy, but I can recommend a run of a particular journal that shows how slippery these labels can be (Robert Paxton dislikes Sternhell’s “middle way” interpretation, rejecting the notion that France was ever fascist, though fascist writers and intellectuals surely existed there).

 American Review was published by Seward Collins, a supporter of the Southern Agrarians, and from whose ranks many of the New Critics emerged. Frankly profascist, it appeared from 1934-37, and attempted to synthesize the thought of New Humanists (incl. Irving Babbitt and More), the English Distributists (incl. G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc), the Neo-Thomists (incl. Robert Maynard Hutchins), and the Southern Agrarians (incl. Alan Tate, Donald Davidson). I read most of every issue, and I recall the animus toward James Joyce and Alfred Stieglitz, contrasting with the admiration for Eliot and Pound. In 1934, they published T. S. Eliot’s famous Barbour lecture at the University of Virginia in which he made his remark about limiting the number of freethinking Jews lest community cohesiveness be jeopardized.

I have described a lot of the materials in this fascinating journal (and it was a revelation to me) in my book Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival, as a number of their writers were great fans of Herman Melville.  (See, for names of famous critics who published in AR.) There was also some crossover with the writers of American Literature, founded in 1929 I think. I have yet to go through Southern Review or other literary periodicals of the 1930s with similar politics.

The Trotskyists of Partisan Review were a confusing lot also. Picasso published a piece decrying the Stock Exchange in an early issue. They published T. S. Eliot (in 1943 I believe) and their writers were in the front lines defending Ezra Pound in the Bollingen Prize controversy of 1949, insisting on the separation between art and life.

It is only lately that I have discovered that “modernism” is seen as prefascist by more than Ze’ev Sternhell. I am reading (Catholic) Richard Noll’s history of The Jung Cult and was amazed to see Freud, Nietzsche, Wagner, Jung, and other “bourgeois” and crypto-Protestant cult leaders all grouped together as promoting the romantic individual, hence part of the supposedly volkisch ideology that fed Hitler and the Nazis. Theodor Herzl is similarly classified with these very bad, very modern fellows in a biography by Amos Elon.

I raised this issue on my KPFK program once (probably in the 1990s), and got a phone call from a frightened academic who said that it was professional suicide to make distinctions between the left-wing and right-wing modernists. If you are interested in the ideology of the New Critics who were so influential in the reconstruction of the humanities curriculum in the late 1930s, please read You will see why my radio caller was afraid to be identified, even by his first name.

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