YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

September 8, 2013

Reading between the lines

Humpty-DumptyIn an often contentious thread on my Facebook page yesterday, I responded to a critic who suggested that I view my website as if it had the legitimacy of Biblical texts and rabbinic commentary. As part of my response, I argued that Biblical texts and associated commentary were “texts” susceptible to criticism and analysis (just as my blogs are meant to be by readers who fault my reasoning and/or facts).

Mine was postmodern talk (i.e., that all communications are “texts” susceptible to deconstruction) so this blog is about where I stand regarding postmodernism, which I do use selectively as part of my critical toolbox, along with “historicism” (See https://clarespark.com/2013/09/04/the-syria-crisis-and-historicism/.).

I.First, wherefore the term “postmodernism”? Here is the Wikipedia definition of the movement: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postmodernism. Its critics are vehemently opposed to this movement in criticism because of its “nihilism,” its denial of “truth,” its challenge to the authority of “science,” its tendency to “anarchism,” and its “moral relativism.” In practice, the postmodernists often point to bureaucratic rationality (Max Weber, not Karl Marx!) and mechanistic thinking as the cause of such catastrophic phenomena as the Holocaust. Since the general tendency of cultural studies follows the postmodern/poststructuralist agenda, I will explain why I find much of it useful, if not all.

While in graduate school at UCLA, many postmodernists saw me as sympathetic to their cause, perhaps because I was doing “reader-reception theory” (exploring the drastically changing meanings assigned to Herman Melville’s texts since the 19thcentury). I.e., I was looking competing narratives that explained Melville’s sometimes difficult texts . There was a similar interest in my finding that many of the key Melville revivers were practicing psychological warfare, while in some cases, caving to academic pressures that conflicted with their spontaneous responses to Melville’s often ambiguous, even mysterious life and art.

The key word is “ambiguity” along with “indeterminacy,” terms espoused by “pomos.”  Being an introspective person, I do find my own life to be ambiguous in the sense that I cannot relate a personal history with a definite cause and effect sequence. Where I depart from postmodernism is in its insistence that all of science is “a swindle”, or that “mechanical materialism” is a philistine element of the Enlightenment that caused “the Holocaust,”  or that all attempts at reconstructing the past are fool’s errands.

II. Second, a few words about cultural pluralism as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. It is undoubtedly offensive to some readers that I view the Bible as a text, rather than seeing it as God-originated revelation; I imagine that my Orthodox Jewish son-in-law would see my position as Talmudic and typically Jewish. One reason for the duration of our representative republic is the notion of tolerance and relatively free exchange of ideas. Whereas Europe was engulfed in war following the Reformation, the Founders very wisely insisted in a separation of Church and State: there would be no established state religion. The culture wars are fought over this point, and they have polarized the country around competing readings of the Constitution, with “secular progressives” read out of the polity by some pundits on the Right.

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III. Third, the notion of “the will to power” (the title of one of Nietzsche’s books).  I have seen many Facebook comments attributing “the will to power” as the driving purpose of their ideological opponents. Indeed, in a past field exam for the U.S. history graduate students, one question asked us to comment on feminism as “the will to power.” I took this to be a hostile response to such usurpers of male authority as Anne Hutchinson in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. But in my dissertation research, I noticed that aristocrats threatened with dispossession by partly emancipated women, Jews, and workers after the French Revolution, attacked these rising groups as motivated solely by a demonic, hence illegitimate, desire to control them. It is my view that Foucault and his followers come out of this aristocratic reaction to the rise of the bourgeoisie with its all-engulfing “cash nexus.”

During the period that I was shopping my book manuscript, an occasional reader would accuse me of too closely identifying with the dastardly Captain Ahab, and imagining that I had the right answer to the Melville problem, notwithstanding that I refused to conclude anything in particular other than the suppression of key documents in Melville’s life and art that would have made his more influential critics look really bad. There are problems that are insoluble, particularly where the human psyche and a dearth of primary source documents are involved.

Some other Melvilleans claimed that I was vindictive owing to my firing as Program Director of KPFK in 1982! Obviously, I, a female with strong views about censorship, must be possessed by “the will to power” over authoritative male literary historians.  Whereas I should have backed off and admitted that there are a “multiplicity of readings” on all matters of fact. For these nay-sayers I perhaps invoked Hawthorne’s sketch of the uppity, puffed-up “Woman” : Hester Prynne was modeled on Anne Hutchinson as Michael Colacurcio once argued.

As the late Norman J. Levitt insisted in his takedown of the postmodernists among the academic Left, some science is “settled.”  But the “bourgeois apologist” Levitt is dead, and I hear rumors that 2+2=5.

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September 6, 2013

The “credibility” conundrum

credibilityWe are in the midst (or at the beginning of) the “Syria crisis”.  My observant Jewish friends and family are also engrossed in self-reflection, perhaps even atonement and reparations for those they have wronged over the past year. Not being an observant Jew myself, I am engrossed in how language is deployed during this massive attempt by a Democratic administration to achieve consensus over a policy that is controversial in both political parties.

The word of the day is “credibility”. Behold how it is used twice in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal , 9-6-13, p. A15, co-authored by Joseph Lieberman and Jon Kyl, and entitled “Inaction on Syria Threatens U.S. Security.” : …This is no longer just about the conflict in Syria or even the Middle East. It is about American credibility. Are we a country that our friends can trust and our enemies fear? Or are we perceived as a divided and dysfunctional superpower in retreat, whose words and warnings are no longer meaningful?…[We must put our country first]…That judgment should provide the foundation we need for a bipartisan strategy that protects America’s credibility and, in turn advances our security and prosperity.”  (my emph.)

I asked my Facebook friends to state what they thought “credibility” signified. One answered with the definition of the word that Lieberman and Kyl probably agree with: there must not be a conflict between rhetoric and action. I prefer to dig a little deeper and ask, is the word “credibility” not connected to the notion of “credit worthiness”? Max Weber, protesting the lack of spirituality in the iron cages of materialism constructed by the capitalist spirit, alleged that Protestantism had made creditworthiness the test of what we now call “credibility.” The poet William Blake (a great favorite in the New Left)  preceded him in denouncing  [the money changers in the temple] in favor of “community” uncontaminated by filthy lucre.

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How did we become a superpower to begin with? Was it by overwhelming moral superiority, as that proto-progressive John Winthrop urged in the seventeenth century? Or was it the collapse of our rivals in the twentieth century, owing to disastrous and expensive European wars? Did we emerge as the only “superpower” rather by default because of our capitalist work ethic combined with the existence of a continent with virgin soil, untapped mineral resources and plenty of eager immigrants and ex-slaves to do the heavy lifting? And are our “divisions” easily overcome through a manly effort at will power?

The notion, advanced by Lieberman and Kyl, that divisive, partisan nay-sayers are the obstacles to unity, prosperity and security leaves me, well, incredulous.  No dissenter I have read is hell bent on weakening America. They all have realistic reservations about such matters as an exploding debt and the unforeseeable consequences of this belated intervention in what seems to me to be the least predictable, and most volatile region on earth. The sudden focus on the Syrian crisis may well be a Democratic machine initiative to change the subject and ultimately to destroy the Republican Party that would curb the welfare state. Mass media will cooperate without reflection: their format alone will break our concentration. See https://clarespark.com/2013/05/10/losing-focus-and-mass-media/.

US spending

September 4, 2013

The Syria crisis and historicism

arabs-take-syria-crisis-to-un-1327616110-3682I am in no way an expert on current relations in the Middle East, but I have found one article that seems rational and appropriately analytic, written by Caroline Glick: http://www.carolineglick.com/e/2013/08/obamas-bread-and-circuses.php#.UiduRyC71lA.facebook.

Who is supporting Obama’s recent foreign policy moves? The Wall Street Journal and various moderates, i.e., neoconservatives. As I write this short blog, those who support Obama’s desire to have a limited strike in Syria are calling their opponents “isolationists.”  These include Bret Stephens writing in the Wall Street Journal, and Ron Radosh, writing for Pajamas Media. Stephens is critical of neo-isolationism, while Radosh seems primarily concerned with the weakening of executive authority. Radosh writes “Our country cannot afford the luxury of weakening of presidential power and authority, which could stifle the ability to act when it is most needed in the future. Supporting the authority of the Chief Executive to act, does not mean conservatives and Republicans should stop being critical of the policy of the Obama administration, its half-way measures, its contradictions and its overall embarrassing incompetence. But to weaken the authority of any Chief Executive to act, including President Barack Obama, will only hurt the nation and stifle our ability to respond to aggression effectively, now and later.” it is somewhat buried within a comparison of “isolationists” before and after WW2. But are the conditions the same?

ISOLATIONISM”. It is not historically correct to label every opponent of Obama’s latest initiative in the Syria crisis as an “isolationist,” though some may be so. The opponents of American involvement in European affairs as European countries fell into the lap of the Third Reich during the 1930s (see https://clarespark.com/2013/08/31/the-devil-in-history-a-j-p-taylor-vs-r-palme-dutt/ ),  were largely from the Midwest and South: many bought the defeatist line of such unapologetic antisemites as Joseph P. Kennedy while he was Ambassador to the Court of St. James. Kennedy even warned a gathering of fifty mostly Jewish Hollywood “moguls” in 1940 that Hitler would win and that they should therefore not make anti-Nazi films, a point that is overlooked by Ben Urwand’s sensational book Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler (Harvard UP, 2013). And before that, FDR’s support of the Neutrality Act allowed the Spanish rebels to destroy a popularly elected government in Spain. FDR was worried about “the Catholic vote.”

At the time, like populist antisemites before them, Hitler and his admirers in other countries blamed all modern warfare on an international cabal of Jewish financiers who also controlled the new mass media. From J. A. Hobson onward, “the Jews” made wars for the sake of unseemly profits (see Hobson’s words here: https://clarespark.com/2009/09/18/bad-sex-in-the-new-york-times/). Such was the source of much “isolationism” before Pearl Harbor. (And I have not mentioned prior French upper-class ongoing hatred of the French Revolution and Napoleon’s emancipation of the Jews, echoed by the tsarist agents who dreamed up The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, itself based on an earlier French rightist fantasy.)

This is a confusing time for Americans of both political parties. What I see missing from the commentary of Obama’s supporters is the appropriate hesitancy of intervention that is considered to be either “too little too late” or misdirected and likely to further empower Iran, Syria’s ally and patron. The opponents of Obama are not wary of any foreign intervention because of the Jew-hatred that marked “isolationism” before Pearl Harbor. The dissenters’ case is made on strategic grounds, blended with a mistrust of this administration’s competence in foreign affairs, including its appeal to a non-existent “international community.”

The moral of this short blog: Historicism is the practice of looking at conflict without specious analogies to prior conflicts. Each new conflict is unique and our opinions are largely based on guesswork and such often suspect and multi-layered statements as become public.  The best of us are groping in the dark. It is all too human to seek patterns and precedents in the past, but that may be a fool’s errand, for the historians or other experts upon whom we rely are captives to an often inaccessible record along with their biases and preferred interpretations.

While it used to be the case that historical judgments about the causes of prior wars were based on the archival record (such as it is), we have nothing to go on now but the statements of our leaders. Should we trust their veracity and good intentions? When did properly skeptical historians become “authoritative” journalists? (See https://clarespark.com/2013/05/06/the-new-left-activist-scholars/.)

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