YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

March 6, 2011

Groupiness

 

David Brion Davis

   I am reposting this excerpt from my book, because it demonstrates the lineage of the cultural historians who dominate the teaching of U.S. “cultural history” and American Studies in the most prestigious Ivy League schools. Although their lineage appears to be derived from the “structural functionalism” of Talcott Parsons, the famed and influential Harvard sociologist, Parsons was no innovator in writing the individual out of history. Rather, the symbolic interactionists were his predecessors; they in turn were part of the genealogy of German idealism as initiated by the eighteenth century theologian J. G. von Herder. So we should not be surprised that Captain Ahab was demonized as a typical American “rugged individualist” by such as F. O. Matthiessen (see https://clarespark.com/2010/12/29/f-o-matthiessen-martyr-to-mccarthyism/), or that dozens of New Leftists allege that symbols (language) create reality. For them, group-think is the norm, the individualist the social disease to be overcome. From these social theorists emanates “multiculturalism” and its “anti-imperialism” that turns out to blame America first, as an unfree world that is falsely contrasted to the slavish Soviet Union.

Europe supported by Africa and America

    And writing in this same tradition, such classical liberals as Charles Sumner were held to be instigators of the American Civil War, whereas such as David Brion Davis, the father-figure to a generation of cultural historians of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, would follow suit, as Davis hinted strongly that “rational persuasion and gradual enlightenment” would have averted the war that paranoid hotheads had made inevitable. (See David Brion Davis, The Slave Power Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style (1969), p.55, see also p.61.) Throughout the latter book, Davis refers to the Cold War mentality that similarly exaggerates the Soviet threat, so I have concluded that there is a Stalinoid agenda working in this body of work, that uses the abolitionists as a weapon against supposed right-wing hysterics. I identify Davis with regret, because it was his course on American intellectual history at Cornell that led me to take up U.S. history in graduate school.

 [Excerpt from chapter 2, Hunting Captain Ahab:] Rooted, blood and soil historicism would logically have to sabotage the rational search for “common ground” so strenuously advocated by Progressives as the approved Anglo-Saxon solution to class warfare. This impasse was addressed six years later by Nation reader Rabbi Lee J. Levinger, a pluralist and pragmatist, who was the self-proclaimed intellectual descendant of Kant, Comte, Spencer, LeBon, Durkheim, McDougall, Cooley, and John Dewey. Levinger identified two brands of extremism: 100 percent Americans pursuing the “lost cause” of anti-Semitism; and maladjusted Jews suffering from “oppression psychosis.” In his book Anti-Semitism in the United States: Its History and Causes (1925), Levinger softly explained that American “soil” sprouted neither Marxists nor nativist hysterics: “class consciousness” and “prejudice” disappear when hard hearts melt and rationally adapt to new conditions. Jewish immigrants should leave behind their rigid European formulations of Fascismo versus Socialism, Czarists versus Bolsheviks. In racially and ethnically diverse, sprawling, brawling America, unity would yet be found in the “higher synthesis” of “group minds” admiring their “ideal self.” An all inclusive God-figure smiled on equal opportunity, experiments in group adjustment, and a “scientific” sociology in which “group mind” (an “empirical fact”) confers “functional unity.” Worrisome dissension, hate and inter-group violence were produced solely by “hysteria,” the residual “high emotional tone” left in the dissolution of artificial wartime unity. With corrected “gradation of loyalties” and discreetly harmonized “overlapping” “group affiliations,” groups, not individuals, would be possessed of the “individuality” for which democrats yearned. The national (nascently international) symphony should commence. As for domination, there isn’t any. Levinger explained after quoting James Mark Baldwin, a sociologist:

“The real self is always the bi-polar self, the social self.” Empirically, not only are civilization, history and government the products of social heredity; the individual himself as we have him owes his mental content, many of his feelings and motor responses, and his ultimate ideals to the group in which he was born and has developed. On this basis the ancient conflict between the isolated individual and the group domination becomes unimportant, if not meaningless, from the empirical point of view (32).

Regretfully, Levinger’s “exceptional individual,” the “genius or social discoverer” was linked to the “criminal or social rebel.” Mad and tragic misfits–like stubborn, hypersensitive, primitivistic Jews regressively merged with their “alters” or “other”– refused the “tolerant” “social self.”[i] By the end of the 1930s, Melville’s isolatoes (Ahab, Pierre, Isabel, Margoth) would be desaparecidos. Wholeness (but not whaleness) commanded “American” literature.

The Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed equal rights to every individual citizen. The new social psychology was sanely designed to wrest the concept of individuality from individual persons to groups: races, ethnicities and business corporations.[ii] There might be no commitment to civil liberties in the practice of corporatist intellectuals had not the bloody repression of oppositional political speech during the first two decades of the twentieth century apparently propelled workers and their allies toward socialism, forcing moderate conservatives to forestall revolution in the disillusioned lower orders after the Great War by incorporating libertarian ideals and subversive writers. But the inspiring enlightenment rationalism of John Locke, Condorcet, and the Founding Fathers [iii] was vitiated by the racialist Progressive discourse derived from German idealism and the ideas of J. G. von Herder, the hyphenated Americanism promoted after 1916 that advocated antiracist social and educational policies persisting today as “multiculturalism.” [iv] 


                [i] 76. Rabbi Lee J. Levinger, Anti-Semitism in the United States, Its History and Causes (N.Y.: Bloch, 1925), 29, 333-34, 39-44, 51, 71, 78, 94-95, 110, 115.

[ii] 77. A clipping preserved by Carey McWilliams is revealing in this regard: Woodruff Randolph’s editorial in the Typographical Journal 9/4/37, protested recent right-wing offensives; the headline read “Incorporate Unions? Step Toward Fascism, Says ‘Typo’ Secretary.” Randolph contrasted the business corporation “partly a person and partly a citizen, yet it has not the inalienable rights of a natural person” with “A labor organization [which] is organized to do in numbers what each may do individually under his inalienable rights.” Carey McWilliams Papers, UCLA Special Collections, Box 14.

[iii]78. James W. Ceaser, Reconstructing America, Chapter 2. Ceaser differentiates among the Founders, arguing that Jefferson’s political rationalism existed in tension with received ideas on race; the overall effect was to replace political science with natural history as the guide to sound government. Condorcet, the most comprehensively democratic philosophe, the champion of internationalism, popular sovereignty, public education, feminism, and progress, and enemy to separation of powers and checks and balances (as ploys of elites to subvert democratic will), was annexed to the conservative enlightenment to give liberal credibility to the New Deal elevation of the executive branch of government over the legislative branch. See J. Salwyn Schapiro, Condorcet and the Rise of Liberalism (N.Y.: Octagon Reprint, 1978, orig. pub. 1934, repub. 1963), 276-277: “Security for both capital and labor is essential if freedom of enterprise is to survive…Responsibility in government can be more efficiently maintained by giving more authority to the executive, who would wield power, not as an irresponsible dictator, but as a democratically chosen official responsible to a legislature whose essential function would be to act as the nation’s monitor. Progress has been the peculiar heritage of liberalism to which it must be ever faithful in order to survive.” Condorcet joins Paine and Jefferson as fodder for the moderate men of the vital center.

[iv] 79. I am using 1916 as a milestone in the promotion of ethnopluralism because of the publication of the Randolph Bourne article, “Trans-National America,” and a now forgotten book by the head psychologist of the Boston Normal School, J. Mace Andress, Johann Gottfried Herder as an Educator (New York: G.E. Stechert, 1916). The latter introduced Herder as the precursor to Franz Boas and advocated the new “race pedagogy.” There was no ambiguity about the welcome counter-Enlightenment drift of German Romanticism in this work. For Andress, the German Romantic hero was a rooted cosmopolitan, fighting to throw off [Jewish] materialist domination to liberate the Volksgeist. In 1942, Herder was presented as a Kantian, pantheist, cosmopolitan and quasi-democrat, even a supporter of the French Revolution in James Westfall Thompson, A History of Historical Writing, Vol. 2, 33-138, especially 137.

Some more recent intellectual historians are rehabilitating Herder along with other figures of the Hochklarung, similarly held to be avatars of the freethinking emancipated individual. In his talk at the Clark Library symposium “Materialist Philosophy, Religious Heresy, and Political Radicalism, 1650-1800,” (May 1, 1999) John H. Zammito declared that Herder’s philosophy (the demolition of mechanical materialism?) cleared the way for the further development of natural science in Germany. The key figure for these scholars is Spinoza, his pantheism the apex of “vitalist materialism.” Margaret C. Jacob, author of The Radical Enlightenment, 1981, was organizer of the conference, but we are using the term with differing assumptions about scientific method and what, exactly, constitutes the radical Enlightenment.

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January 15, 2011

Healing, Trauma, Mystery

Jared Loughner's backyard shrine

I have closely followed the media coverage of the Tucson massacre and listened intently to the President’s speech at the U. of Arizona. Much praise was heard throughout the punditry for his message of healing (including Fox News!), and though he separated uncivil speech from the actions of the (unnamed) “shooter,” still his message was received as “spiritual” and gave a sense of closure to many listeners (probably the press who longed to move on). (Meanwhile, many of my Facebook friends viewed the event as a campaign speech and a circus.) The point is that the President fortified his centrist credentials in the eyes of many.

    If you have followed my blogs on this website, you will know that I have been verbally apoplectic over the notion that “moderation” can “heal” irreconcilable conflicts, whether they are within ourselves or out in the world. The word “trauma” was rarely heard over the air waves or in the blogosphere this week, though clearly the numerous victims were traumatized, and though faith may help some of the victims and their families “heal”, I remain skeptical. Wounds may heal. Irreparable losses and deficiencies in families or in our political actions may not, notwithstanding the promises of professional “healers.”*  In my view, conflicts can often be managed; sometimes they are not manageable.

     There is now talk of “toning down” the more raucous talk-radio hosts: Obama warned us not to “turn on each other.” I’m all for that as a civilized person and opponent of all forms of demonization, since the Devil is not a character who inhabits my psyche or anywhere else in my belief system. But I wonder about the social function that the “haters” perform in society in helping others vent their rage, rage that has many possible causes: coming back from war, endless bullying in school without intervention from the authorities, horrible incidents in childhood and a general lack of knowledgeable, responsible parenting. I have written endlessly here, too, of my opposition to apocalyptic thinking that is so typical of demagogues–no matter where they stand on the political spectrum. The constant invocation of irreversible environmental changes, for instance, is a form of terror, and one can only speculate about how such talk distorts our political culture. In the case of “climate change,” propaganda can be so extreme that a pause to consider scientific evidence pro and con is forestalled because we become invested in one outcome or the other, just to defend ourselves against the worst case scenario. The alternative to either idealizing the effects of technical progress or of turning back to an imagined  Golden Age is the intensive labor of investigation and hard thought.

   I have also written about “mystery”–another concept invoked by the President last week, when he said we would never understand what the shooter was feeling (or words to that effect). The notion of limited human understanding is sometimes appropriate, but more often comes with a strong attachment to those religions that emphasize the weakness of the human sensorium, and the limited understanding that will be repaired in paradise or the underworld for the deserving (Plato speaking through Socrates!). Actually, we know quite a bit about mental illnesses of the extreme forms, and there are treatments available for such sufferers, while pathbreaking research proceeds apace and needs our support. In my view, the President missed an opportunity when he did not name Jared Loughner and his parents as victims in the massacre, for he could have opened a national discussion of social policy in the various states regarding treatment or institutionalization of the hopelessly mentally ill, including the shame attached to all kinds of emotional problems. Indeed, it is widely held that only (sex-obsessed, carnal, worldly) Jews believe in or practice psychoanalysis and related therapies. We don’t give enough weight to the power of antisemitism itself to induce what historian Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style.”

   To sum up: the rift in our country was not created by the language used or abused by politicians and pundits. Two economic philosophies face one another and only empirical investigation of the most stringent kind will support the arguments of either the proponents of progressivism or the proponents of libertarianism/laissez-faire/the self-regulated free market. Let us hope that our country eschews the demagogic comforts of conceptions like “healing” the permanently traumatized, and that we adhere to the most precise and rigorous investigations–no holds barred– of what ails us.

*Recommended reading: Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man (1857), the scene in which the Invalid Titan confronts and strikes the Herb Doctor. There is no doubt where Melville stood on the permanence of trauma, nor is there any doubt that his family resented his suffering and inconsolability.

August 30, 2009

That slippery word “populism”

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Richard Hofstadter

There is a role for both the public and private sectors in a democratic republic: what the division of responsibilities should be is the subject of the most raucous debates, as we have seen during the first months of the Obama administration. There is too much loose talk and name-calling, not enough healthy skepticism of one’s own predilections in favor of  this or that policy. I have frequently criticized the Populist/Progressive movement on this website, not only because I encourage vigorous, fact-based criticism of  over-reaching government powers or of any other “liberal” institution that betrays its principles and discourages competition, but because the original Populist movement in the 1890s was directed against “the money power” that was frequently (if not always) associated with “the Jews.” Sadly, some New Leftist academics have airbrushed the conspiratorial assumptions of populism in an attempt to rehabilitate the Populist movement; often this took the form of a general attack on the historian Richard Hofstadter, author of The Age of Reform (that nailed the Populists for antisemitism) as well as his work on “the paranoid style.” (For an encomium to Hofstadter see http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/98nov/hofstadt.htm.)

Visitors here will notice that nearly all my entries are concerned with explicit or embedded antisemitic messages. It is very easy to spot the more obvious kinds of antisemitism that demonize “the Jews”, but even those organizations that are defending “the Jews” or the state of Israel do not go far enough, in my view, in identifying the more subtle forms of Jew hatred–a phobia that is so intense as to affect mental and physical health and impair the very critical processes that make a democratic republic possible. For if all criticism of [illegitimate, arbitrary] authority is subconsciously experienced as parricide or deicide, then the guilty would-be citizen has nothing but “the heart” (the emotions) to react with, and may become putty in the hands of demagogues.

When I criticize the Ivy League or other elite universities, it is not out of [populist] anti-intellectualism, but because I want the great universities to live up to their mission, that is, to train future leaders and innovators, who will then go on to make their professions true to their founding principles, whether these be designing curricula in the schools that develop fully conscious citizens who can separate facts from propaganda and test their government in every respect; or who, as experts, will separate the wheat from the chaff, and who will stand up to the institutions that direct their work in anti-social directions.

Take for instance the false impressions disseminated by the far, far Right, who now claim that “political correctness” and “the liberal narrative” were created by “the Frankfurt Shool” [sic]. Refugee scholars from Germany, such as Adorno, Horkheimer, Erich Fromm, and Marcuse are now the big bogey men on some blatantly racist and antidemocratic sites (one brags about its advocacy of monarchism). As I have demonstrated in my own research, much of it reproduced here on the YDS website, the Frankfurt School of critical theory did not initiate the goals of the Populist-Progressive movement of conservative reform in America (e.g. the New Deal), nor did they plot to curb the First Amendment.

The Frankfurters did share a sharp critique of “mass culture” and wrote about Hitler as the creature of mass culture (or popular culture), but in doing so, they were merely echoing centuries of aristocratic propaganda about the incapacities of “the people” to rule themselves without aristocratic leadership (see my blog “The People Is An Ass….” and the four entries on Hitler and the Big Lie: https://clarespark.com/2009/08/24/the-people-is-an-ass-or-a-herd/, https://clarespark.com/2011/06/19/index-to-links-on-hitler-and-the-big-lie/). And some of their most prestigious members did recommend the use of materials created by Henry A. Murray and Harold Lasswell (on the latter two men, see the blogs on civilian morale and preventive politics, both filled with documentary evidence of social psychologists seeking 1. to limit speech and create subliminal propaganda on a grand scale in order to maintain consensus, not to seek the truth; and 2. to identify latent radicals and keep them out of leadership).

But that is what pseudo-moderates do, so the worst sin I can attribute to such as Theodore Adorno is organic conservatism, a stance that he represented as “genuine liberalism.” (See the blog on his definition of that term, or the longer blog on corporatist liberalism: https://clarespark.com/2009/08/25/t-w-adorno-and-his-funny-idea-of-genuine-liberalism/, https://clarespark.com/2009/08/09/what-is-a-corporatist-liberal-and-why-should-they-frighten-us/.) As for his defense of high culture, there is no such thing as an ideologically consistent high culture standing armed to defend reality, science, and the rule of law, and I doubt that Adorno would have disagreed with that judgment. Where I fault the affinity group to the Frankfurters is their too hasty rejection of the Enlightenment and science as such, often attributing the rise of Hitler to the irreligous technical worker (see F. Meinecke on this diagnosis: https://clarespark.com/2010/04/12/multiculturalismethnopluralism-in-the-mid-20th-century/). But that is not why the far, far Right is going after them.  Write the ending to this blog yourselves.

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