The Clare Spark Blog

April 26, 2013

The television season goes Dark

The-following-posterI understand that television is not considered to be other than escapist entertainment, and not a business with pretensions to artiness or literariness, but there are many critics who treat its more upscale offerings with the reverence once reserved to Balzac (for instance see the indefatigable Terri Gross in her new interview with Matthew Weiner, creator of MAD MEN: in the part I heard she was insisting that Don Draper has a “death wish”).

As the 2012-2013 season draws to a close, I must say that I can’t remember a time when popular entertainment was as ideological driven or death-obsessed. I admit to not understanding the adolescent craze for vampires or zombies, though I have my suspicions of deranged right-wing Romanticism and/or the adolescent desire to irritate parents. But I do get the populist flavor, laced with morbidity, of the “better” television series, especially those directed to a more upscale, presumably educated audience.

Lest I be misunderstood, I am not nostalgic for the television fare of the 1950s and 1960s, with its frequently inane glorification of the ordinary folksy American family, rural or urban. The material introduced in response to 1960s and 1970s uproars was critical, and though usually anti-American and anti-establishment, was at least well-written, brilliantly acted, and interesting to decode for its (typically populist) politics. Nor do I fail to detect the ideology in the theater popular when I was growing up: at least it was well meaning, brilliantly written, conceived, and performed—and relatively anti-racist.

But what to make of such paranoia-inducing recent offerings as the romantic necrophiliac THE FOLLOWING (internet gossip reports it renewed!), or the ongoing goriness in CRIMINAL MINDS, or the hatred of hedge fund managers profiting off evil drug companies as displayed in the last episode of PERSON OF INTEREST, or amoral rich people as were evident in DECEPTION, now in SCANDAL (the last episode particularly horrifying), MAD MEN, REVENGE, and even the apparently harmless and well-written THE GOOD WIFE, a love triangle that manages to mostly evade the possibly unparalleled corruption of  Democratic Chicago, while “Alicia” wavers between family and sex? (I have been watching reruns of the Dick Wolf generated LAW AND ORDER: CRIMINAL INTENT, and find the same targets, often Jews, who are either the perps, or who as doctors and lawyers are equally loathsome and corrupt. In one episode, “the Jewish mob” is identified as the most “vicious” of all: oh really?). Add to that the swipes at Mossad in the ever-popular NCIS, and you have the picture. Nouveaux riches and the government enforcers (cops, government regulators, other bureaucrats, CIA, etc.) whom the moneybags obviously control in their own depraved interest, are the chief subjects of the most watched television shows. The poster for THE FOLLOWING (illustrated) shows the dual character of those who serve “law and order.” “Order” for whom? is clearly implied as Bacon and Purefoy are halves of one whole, following Poe’s “William Wilson” in its doppelgänger conception, perhaps a major conceit in the imagination of television writers. And don’t be fooled by the poster for THE FOLLOWING. “Joe Collins” (James Purefoy) is clearly the protagonist, and he stepped out of character in the most recent episode to plug Green living. Why not Kevin Bacon, who barely appears in the series, and whose character is an alcoholic to boot?

Are there any shows with family values? So far, BLUE BLOODS takes the prize. Irreproachably Irish Catholic and upright, the patriarchal Reagan family holds together in contrast to the decadent cities it valiantly disciplines. Even THE MENTALIST is terror gothic in spirit, and clearly plays on fears of the French Revolution, while teasing its faithful viewers that “Patrick Jane” is actually serial killer Red John, rather than someone likely to be very high up in the government. It too is paranoia inducing. Shame on you Bruno Heller, who should know better.

And SMASH, the backstage story of a Broadway musical, will not likely be renewed, while its writing and music to these ears are downright embarrassing. What a hollow victory for hip movement culture, with its glorification of the ever-misunderstood and pathetic Marilyn Monroe.  On to off-Broadway, inter-racial understanding, and the offbeat rock musical and heterosexual and homosexual pairing off. On television, racism/miscegenation has disappeared if you sing and dance well enough. Perhaps the same thing can be said for new Broadway shows, either PC or living off the bones of its ancestors.

Meanwhile, few in show business pay attention to education reform, the illicit power of the teachers unions, and their relentless, media-supported attempts to undermine the educations of real black and brown children in urban ghettoes and elsewhere. Try to find a decent public school in NYC or Los Angeles, homes of those who write and produce the mindless (though technically advanced) shows I have listed above.

Now tell me the condition of our urban schools is not racist in the extreme. The better historians lament the world wide indifference as the Holocaust and other horrors proceeded in the 1930s and 1940s, while today the hippest among us wallow in gonzo ressentiment, apocalypse, the undead, blood and gore. Who is indifferent now? Should we blame the audience, who allegedly want this polluted fare?

Is the great American experiment going down? If popular culture is any indication, the answer is “you betcha.” Who needs a Fifth Column or other demonic forces when you have the entertainment industry?

[I have blogged about most of the tv shows mentioned here and others: see]

good wife cast pic chris noth 2 season 2

October 1, 2009

Perfectly Progressive Parenthood

Po Bronson, author

   Until my posting of the Anne Hutchinson witch-hunt essay, I hadn’t said anything here about the battle of the sexes, a fact of life that I never doubted in adulthood. At my age I can say, though it is impermissible to claim,  that I will probably never fully understand most men (no matter how much I love them), and I am quite certain that men will never understand women, or given unequal gender relations, will they even need to. I could say the same about sibling rivalry and the murderous impulses it calls forth, but you can read all about that in the Biblical book of Genesis. But never in my blogging life did I encounter a more blatant example of “progressive” tomfoolery than in the interview NPR’s Terri Gross conducted with the co-author of a book about the latest advice to would-be perfectly progressive parents. The primary subject was the value of mommy and daddy fighting in front of the kids, hitherto something of a taboo in the old dispensation.  

    For the past few months many of the essays on this website have been identifying one overarching theme in the ideology of “progressives”: the belief that all conflict can be peacefully resolved through the mutual “cultural” understanding that leads to better diplomacy and compromise. It is simply a question of management, properly understood if we would only listen to [infallible] experts, the ones who artfully and scientifically mediate to bring “conflict-resolution.”  So when I heard an interview with one such expert I didn’t know whether to be relieved that my analysis was correct, or to wonder yet again how such a blatant ideological intrusion into and about family life can earn research funding, a book publisher and air time on public radio. Here is a section of the transcript of Fresh Air, 30 Sept. 2009. (The full transcript can be found on the internet.)

Mr. PO BRONSON (Author, “Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children”[co-author Ashley Merryman]): Mark Cummings’ lab out of the University of Notre Dame is looking at this very phenomenon very closely and he has parents simulate arguments in front of their kids, where he has kids watch videotapes of arguments and he has parents as conspirators in his experiments. And normally when a kid watches a fight between parents, an argument, a quite heated conflict, that kid will then lash out afterwards or during it and act aggressive. But there’s one thing that happened in those experiments that makes all that aggressive behavior in the child go away: it’s watching the fight get resolved, it’s watching your parents work it out in a constructive way.

And when I read this, I understood that taking it upstairs, you know, I might have a moment of conflict with my wife and I’ll say that according to Cummings’ data, you know, parents are bickering to each other seven to eight times a day and the kids are a witness to it. It’s wrong to imagine that kids aren’t seeing this and feeling it. But when we take the arguments upstairs, the kid sees the fight begin but never sees it amicably resolved, and that’s hurting kids more.

In fact, Cummings’ work is now showing, this most recent data, that kids who are exposed to constructive conflict, and it can be quite heated, but when it’s resolved and worked out in front of the kids, those kids are being reported by teachers as having better well-being and better social skills and they’re sort of more adaptive in their environment at school. We need to – parents need to model for kids how to work through arguments – how to work it out.

GROSS: So are you suggesting parents fight in front of the kids and then hopefully they’ll reach an end of the argument, have an amicable resolution, then the kid will learn from that?

Mr. BRONSON: Mark Cummings would never say, hey, go out and fight in front of your kids, it’s a really good thing to do. He would say that, more that don’t pretend your kid isn’t seeing some of your conflict. Parents believe they are sort of hiding their kids from this conflict but the kids can feel it. And so the important thing is to be aware when you did start something in front of your kids to then really try to model, for the benefit of the kids, working it out. And that might mean holding your tongue and enthusiastically trying to compromise in front of the kids so they can see from their parents how to do this with their own friendships. [“in fact” my emphasis, end transcript]

GET ME SOME SMELLING SALTS! Just rereading this, I had to get up and walk around to calm myself. Apart from the vagueness (which alone is enough to discredit the reportage), the general obliviousness to the raucous and often unmanageable, poorly understood emotions aroused within families and all intimate relationships is breathtaking. Only the intellectually lobotomized could come up with such quackish nostrums as best-selling author Bo Bronson in his report of Mark Cummings research. My readers will already have asked themselves, what are the conflicts about: the trivial that are easily worked out, or major differences in values and direction? Lacking such specificity, we do not know how to proceed in evaluating this research. Are the parents arguing about who drives the kids to school, or how to handle bullies (fighting back or appeasing?), or what religious practices to follow, if any? Is father philandering? Is mother unspeakably bored and overworked? Is the new baby arousing murderous impulses in the older children? Are the parents in disagreement over how far to push their children to achieve at or beyond their own levels? Are the fights over apparent trivia masking much deeper unresolved conflicts within either or both parents? (Make your own list, dear reader.)

     It was once held that children need safety and solidarity between parents, and that open (or subtle) warfare between parents creates intolerable, but often repressed, anxiety as the children feel forced to choose sides; then, later, comes the desire to reconstruct the perfectly happy family that never existed. Such veterans of the family civil wars can become fixated on any demagogue who promises utopian solutions and peace among the nations, no matter how much their material interests clash. In today’s world, such a one may refuse to believe that there is a real threat from Islamic fundamentalism, or blames such threats, assuming they even exist, upon themselves as imperialist Americans or Israelis or “Jewish” capitalism (that is the money-grubbing exploitative variety, as opposed to the “progressive” variety that brings “social justice”).*

      Social conservatives usually argue that their religious traditions recognize the foulness of human nature, hence religion is required to order social life. Thus they emphasize inborn human weakness rather than strength. By strength, I refer not to an indwelling and purifying Christ-Savior, but to the demonstrable human capacity for overcoming anti-social impulses under certain conditions, including discovering the repressed secrets of the self. In the foundational tenet of conservatism, however, “progressives” are necessarily utopian perfectionists who think, like Rousseau, that our species is innately good. In the fiction created by such conservatives, Nathaniel Hawthorne, for instance, the mad scientist is conflated with all would-be social reformers, destroyers all: see his short stories “The Birthmark” or “Ethan Brand.” Unlike Hawthorne, Po Bronson is obviously speaking to parents who see themselves, their children, and their world as entirely manageable once they have mastered the latest techniques.

    I find myself more in accordance with Freud’s essay “Thoughts for the Time on War and Death” (1915), cited in several prior blogs: Freud was dealing with his own disillusion with the idea of Progress, i.e., that civilization would end wars, for who could doubt that Germany, England, and France were ultra-civilized, and yet the casualties and brutality of the Great War were terrible. What I got from Freud’s meditation was this: What we call “civilization” sits lightly in the human psyche, and it is a constant, lifelong struggle to manage anger and frustration (what he would call “aggression”), just as it is often difficult to identify whether the anger is justified, what has caused it, and what, if anything, can be done to improve those institutional structures and practices that either instill rage or deflect it to unworthy, inappropriate objects. But such potentially tragic conclusions are terra incognita to Bronson and NPR, where all endings are happy ones, if you would just fall in line with the latest newsflash from the front.

*Budd Schulberg’s fascinating memoir of his childhood and adolescence is instructive on this point, for he detailed the ongoing conflict between his parents and his naive determination to reconcile them. He then goes on later to write What Makes Sammy Run, a story of a ruthless Jewish operator, Sammy Glick, balanced by the assimilated narrator, a better type of Jew.

September 24, 2009

Liberal opinion leaders and my puritan discontent


David Weigel tracking the Ron Paul demo

 Last evening, a local NPR station broadcast Terri Gross’s interview with David Weigel, an observer of “the Right” with some libertarian credentials of his own. The subject was ostensibly the emergence of a new theme in “right-wing” protest: fiscal conservatism and reverence for the U.S. Constitution. Gross pushed her guest, I thought, to agree with her that the growing deficit was not the real reason folks were turning out for town-hall meetings and mass rallies; rather the deficit (like Constitutionalism) is a cover for the conservative movement to regain momentum for its customary attacks on pro-choice feminism, blacks, illegal Latino workers, and gays. But what was most striking was her view that the protesters were mere clay in the hands of crypto-Fascist organizations and the demagogues of Fox News Channel, prime villains in the recruitment and organization of the 9-12 march on Washington. In other words, she views “the Right” as an undifferentiated mob of proto-Nazis and fascists, illuminated in their dogma by “divine right” that they misread into the Constitution.

    I complained about the program on my Facebook page, and got thoughtful responses from an old friend I met while in graduate school at UCLA, now a history teacher in a Southern university. I promised a blog about the subject, really an excuse to lay out my own philosophy of education, for NPR, like its Pacifica Foundation predecessor, is a listener-supported “educational” outfit that also gets considerable taxpayer funds from the CPB, in addition to the tax-deductibility of individual contributions. The topic is also timely, because Roger Simon has been raising the subject of the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, because it has recently come to light that an Obama operative was directing artists to make work in support of the administration’s policy initiatives. Simon and his companion Lionel Chetwynd are wondering what happens when governments fund the arts and humanities.

    As I have been demonstrating all summer on these blogs, the progressive movement has been engaged in enlarging the role of government in ways that are at best, a mixed bag, and at worst, protofascist. Where do I stand with respect to the “culture wars” as a scholar and teacher through this website? As readers of the blogs will have concluded by now, I view every reader, whatever their background or ideology, as an educable person who would rather be free from coercion than to be yanked around by demagogues and other persons who pander to the prejudices of their audiences. I see myself as an emancipator from illegitimate authority and dogma of every kind.

    I was heavily influenced by both of my parents, the children of immigrants from Eastern Europe. My father Charles Spark was a research pathologist during the 1930s, then an army doctor (a pathologist in charge of U.S. army base laboratories during the second world war), and when he was discharged, he treated veterans and other people of modest means. From him I was taught to be skeptical of most medicine, and especially psychiatry: “We know very little about the brain,” or, “most doctors are quacks,” he warned me. He had no use for the ways of the nourveaux riches but also all establishments, and had a keen nose for corruption. But most importantly, he stressed the importance of preventive medicine and empathy for the anxieties of those who suffer pain.

      My mother Betty Spark was a minor journalist and social worker, primarily an investigator of persons on relief, some of whom were frauds. Like many other women of her generation, she was an underachiever but an avid consumer of high culture and great talker. She also had an insatiable interest in other people, and made friends in unlikely places. She was no snob and moreover, she was relatively free of racial prejudice. The notion of writing off other people as simpletons, yahoos, or puppets, was foreign to her.

     In college (the Cornell State College of Agriculture) and in my first bout of graduate school (Harvard Graduate School of Education), I was trained very rigorously in science education, with little time for the humanities. (Doubtless, I take personal umbrage when city dwellers look down their noses at rural populations who cope with the vagaries of nature and whose labor is intense and uninterrupted with frivolities.)* Whatever I have done in the, for me, almost recreational fields of history and literature is almost entirely the result of independent reading, for I had few prerequisites in history when I applied for the doctorate in history at UCLA after years of radicalism at Pacifica Radio in Los Angeles. The result was that I brought the habit of skepticism, a strong work ethic, and the eye for detail inculcated by the science background, plus, being Jewish (secular) and expecting imminent catastrophe when and if I ever made a mistake or failed to read my environment accurately, I escaped indoctrination and gradually withdrew from prior political alignments, especially as I saw too much conformity to various lines of analysis and hero-worship on the Left as well as the Right. It was hard enough to deal with the idealization of my father the heroic doctor, and I will always struggle with that.

    One reader of this website asked me what I meant by “freedom” (one of the bad words I had listed as creating mobs, because it was so vague as to be meaningless, hence allowed anyone to project whatever meaning the “leader” preferred. See blog I answered him thus: the freedom to see and correct my own misperceptions and mistakes. This may seem like an evasion to some, but I am quite serious. Hip philosophers and social theorists argue endlessly about “structures” versus “agency” and if you don’t listen to them, your work is “under-theorized.” So be it. To conclude this rather personal blog, “freedom” like the other words I listed as potentially mob-making, has a meaning that is dependent on its context. To a small businessman, freedom may entail lower taxes and less bureaucratic red tape in complying with government regulation. Do such persons idealize the “free market”? That is a question we should all be asking, and I would be interested in getting responses from readers to this blog as to what “freedom” means to them, if the word has any concrete, timeless content at all. Don’t look here for final answers, and call me Isabel (an inside Melville joke).

*David Brion Davis (later a famous Yale professor and authority on slavery) allowed me into his American intellectual history course during my last term at Cornell, though I had none of the prerequisites.  I recall thinking that this endeavor was child’s play compared with the sciences, and gazed incredulously at my friends in the school of Arts and Sciences who were seemingly on an extended vacation (unless of course they were science majors).

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