YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

August 1, 2013

Power, relationships, identity

identityI wrote this blog because the notion of “power” as an end in itself is often mentioned by some friends on Facebook, or at times by politicians who accuse their opponents of not having real issues, but only unseemly “ambition” of the type that leads to world wars. To me, there is no such thing as a perverse and demonic will to power. “Power” to me is highly moral and involves self-control, concrete achievements, and the habits that foster humility and lifelong learning. I was raised to value individuality, but never at the expense of responsibility to a larger human community. In my youth, a healthy identity was contrasted to mental illness; the functioning self could distinguish between reality and fantasy, between Real and Fake. Little did I know that I was living in a dream world, for the very notion of the individual is passé, as is originality. Indeed, I should probably view my stubborn search for the truth, no matter how much mockery I engender, as “oppositional defiant disorder.”

If there is any one theme that characterizes this website it is in dating the turn away from the individual as the source of value and identity, to “the individual-in-society”. In other words, at some point in history, we would be defined by our relationships to groups, not by the accuracy of our perceptions. “Society” referred to a bunch of “sub-cultures” that have their own “focal concerns”, e.g. for the urban lower classes that focal concern is “trouble.” At least that is what I learned during my year in graduate school at Harvard in 1958-59. I also learned in the history of science course, taught by I. Bernard Cohen that science was a bit of a racket, and that the skeptic David Hume had proved it beyond cavil.

Fast forward to my stint as program director of radio station KPFK in Los Angeles, 2/1/81 through 7/31/1982. Unbeknownst to me, the concept of the relatively autonomous individual was long gone, and I was hired to implement a policy of “multiculturalism,” and my firing was coincidental with my plans for a Fall Fund Drive where we would challenge myth-making versus science and why such a conflict even existed. The pretext for my firing was that I was bad at smoothing over inter-station conflicts: I should have manufactured harmony where irreconcilable conflicts existed between Trotskyists, Stalinists, and the counter-culture.  (I have told much of this story here: https://clarespark.com/2010/10/21/links-to-pacifica-memoirs/.)  From what I was told, the local CP organized against me because I had allowed too many Trotskyists on the air, and they were speaking about the Spanish Civil War, breaking the Popular Front line that the way to view history during the interwar period was to postulate “the People” against “Fascism.” And only communists opposed fascism, in their view. I was denounced to local progressive organizations by Dorothy Healey, former secretary for the Southern California branch of the CPUSA, as an anti-feminist, an antisemite, and as personally destructive.

It was not until I returned to graduate school at UCLA and was fixated on witch hunts (!) that I figured out why I was purged from Pacifica Radio, which had become my home away from home, and the primary source of my identity as a plucky defender of artistic and intellectual freedom. As long as I was a mere programmer concentrating on free thought, I was safe, for I had listeners who ponied up during Fund Drives. It was my role as administrator that cooked my goose (despite our increasing subscriptions). Until then, I had no idea that individualism was “out” while “culturalism” was “in.”

I was fired for telling the truth (as I understood it), for protecting my hard-won identity as one who recognized conflicts inside myself and in the culture at large. You might say that I benefited from the ecological approach to institutions taught to me at Cornell, where I graduated from the science teaching program available free to all New York State residents in the School of Agriculture (assuming that you had good grades). So much of my programming on “The Sour Apple Tree” involved how institutional constraints limited artistic creativity.

A lot of good my adherence to footnotes and scientific method did me later on: at UCLA, I was labeled as that “hysterical feminist” or “the last positivist.”  I had yet to be called a troublemaking Jew to my face. So much for Cornell U. and its respect for empiricism. But despite the insults, I pressed on. How long had this “culturalism” thing been going on? Based on my research at UCLA, I could date the beginning of the turn toward “culturalism” in the mid-1930s, and have done so here: https://clarespark.com/2009/12/12/switching-the-enlightenment-corporatist-liberalism-and-the-revision-of-american-history/. (A version of this essay was published on History News Network.) But I would prefer to begin with the response to the Soviet Coup of October 1917, as the progressives at the Nation magazine advised conservative readers to move sharply to the left to outflank both the Socialist Party and the I.W.W. This dates the turn away from “materialism” toward “idealist” formulations of social conflict to 1919. See https://clarespark.com/2009/09/19/populism-progressivism-and-corporatist-liberalism-in-the-nation-1919/. Even that periodization has flaws. I researched the preferred style in teaching American literature from the Gilded Age to the present here: https://clarespark.com/2009/09/23/progressives-and-the-teaching-of-american-literature/.

(Much of this material was incorporated into my book on the Melville Revival, Hunting Captain Ahab.) In sum, all my studies strongly suggested that scientific method was questioned and usually discarded for the sake of “the moderate men,” social cohesion, and political stability. Some reviewers of my book ms. prior to publication accused me of liking my own readings too much: I was obviously another bossy Captain Ahab. Is it any wonder I emphasized his declaration of independence: “Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.”  (For related blogs see https://clarespark.com/2012/12/18/blogs-on-mental-health/, and https://clarespark.com/2010/04/22/links-to-blogs-on-military-psychiatry/.)

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January 3, 2010

This witch is not for burning: science as magic

Living Idol from the S-M Collection, UCLA

Living Idol from the S-M Collection, UCLA

I was talking to my sister this morning about how the history of science is being taught in history departments. Barbara used to work for the E.P.A., and is an expert on indoor air and toxic molds. One of her projects is the campaign to address asthma in the public schools. 7% of the population suffers from asthma, while among blacks, the figure is at least 25%. (Moreover, in poor neighborhoods, not all doctors are competent to treat asthma, a controllable disease.) This is a disgraceful disparity, but brings out the necessity for any public health measure to consider the dire effects of environmental contaminants, surely one reason that health-care costs cannot be brought be under control without preventive medicine. And our legislators see public health through such a clouded and narrow lens that any legislation that does not extend its vision into every nook and cranny of how we live, will be severely limited.  Will our politicians, at any level of government, address this and related matters affecting public health? It is up to each and every one of us to resist the ferocious anti-science bias in some aspects of “humanistic” Western culture.

I mention this discussion with my sister because she was incredulous (she shouted out in disbelief) when I told her that the UCLA Department of History has a special program in the history of science, taught as cultural anthropology, as if scientists should be studied as primitive tribes, as exotics. I audited a seminar in 1989, led by Cambridge U. academic star Simon Schaffer, in which he confidently declared that “science was, essentially, a swindle.” Schaffer views himself as a leftist, and probably so do the other members of the group that treats science as part of cultural studies. They follow Foucault, who believed that the bourgeoisie created knowledge in their institutions as a route to total mind-control, having their way with the rest of us, the easily bamboozled by the evidence of progress in combating disease, say, increased life expectancy. (I have blogged about this incessantly, but bear with me, or see https://clarespark.com/2013/03/28/power-and-aristocratic-radicals/.) When I fought back in the Schaffer seminar, the much younger graduate students were silent, or joined in the general mockery of Clare, the troglodyte, who was not only not with it, but who would never get a job. (They were correct of course; if it were possible, I would have been burned at the stake for my pro-science heresy.)

But now consider this: if you know the UCLA campus, the humanities are taught on North Campus, while mathematics and the sciences are located in the South Campus.  The students in the South Campus were nearly all Asian, while North Campus was the home to non-Asians. Do you suppose this was a coincidence, or was it a harbinger of the decline of the West at the hands of its groovy postmodernists and multiculturalists? If you think I am describing an atypical episode, take a look at the career of one of the coolest modernist authors of the twentieth century, William Gaddis, for instance, who described the medical profession as witch-doctors in “The Recognitions.” Misanthropy wins awards these days.

On this website and in my comments on Facebook I have often stood with libertarians. But to argue against “Big Government” without specifying what  positive role government can and should play in promoting a healthful life for us and our children, is a lapse of citizenship. Like other vague abstractions, the phrase can mean anything a demagogue wants it to. Localism has too often been a device to perpetuate reactionary social policies, in this sense a reiteration of the antebellum states’ rights ploy to perpetuate slavery. See blogs https://clarespark.com/2009/07/11/multiculturalists-and-wilsonians-cant-diagnose-the-new-antisemitism/, https://clarespark.com/2009/10/05/charles-sumner-moderate-conservative-on-lifelong-learning/and https://clarespark.com/2008/05/03/margoth-vs-robert-e-lee/. At its best, localism can result in a tight community committed to creative problem solving, but at its worst, localism can go parochial/provincial, condemning ourselves and our children to ignorance, undeserved suffering, and early death.

[Added 1-6-10: A note on the burgeoning Green movement. Beware, science students, of fringe groups that have bonded opportunistically with the respected ecologists. I have seen 60s mystical hippies, mystics of the New Age, and their soul-brothers– white supremacist or separatist groups– following the precepts of  the European New Right in order to add to their numbers and to rescue “spirituality” from capitalists, a.k.a. the Jews. Some very foolish Jews have allowed themselves to be used by these far Rightists, but apparently fail to recognize that they are dealing with arch-segregationists. I have read materials from one group suggesting that all Jews should to go to Israel, a reminder of the attitudes reported by Ralph Bunche in 1947 (i.e., there were numerous states that supported “Zionism” and the partition of Palestine in order to rid their country of Jews). The point is that these “new” rightists follow the degeneration narrative so popular in the late 19th-early 20th centuries, and expect new, ethnically homogeneous local [tribes] to spring up with autarkic economies after the great crumbling that they expect to commence any day now. When I wrote to one of their leaders, he did not shy away from the label “national socialist.” It is worth while contrasting those who oppose “multiculturalism” because they are modern Nordics, with those like myself who see multiculturalism as an elite strategy for micromanaging group conflict, subtly reiterating the racial discourse of old.]

Luis Ricardo Falero, 1878

Luis Ricardo Falero, 1878

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