YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

August 26, 2017

The Monument Business

Robert E. Lee monument, Charlottesville VA

This blog is about one aspect of the fight over American history: the question of modernist abstraction versus “naturalistic” representation. (I have put on my art historical hat/immersion in leftist cultural criticism.)

First read this: https://clarespark.com/2014/03/20/role-models-talcott-parsons-and-structural-functionalism/. (This suggests that statues may be “role models” for “the masses”).

In the spate of demands by “antifa” protesters, the numerous monuments/memorials to Confederate luminaries (and, of course, Columbus) must be taken down by social justice warriors, for they point to a shameful past that had best be forgotten and/or replaced by different monuments that commemorate the resistance to slavery and the glory days of the civil rights movement.

Rosa Parks House, Detroit, now in Berlin Germany

Presumably, such monuments (to black/brown power) will hasten the demise of “white supremacy” (a feature of Amerikkka), surely an apocalyptic fantasy with no grounding in the real world.


Modernism vs. conventional representation.

What are the “white supremacists” protesting? Might it be the growth of progressive nostrums to soothe the structural antagonism between “the money power” and the masses (populism), realized today in the fight between Big Government and ordinary people?

Or is the fight about labor competition exacerbated by labor unions and other policies that co-opt “dissent”—all embodied in “realistic” monuments (unlike modernist abstraction or dialectical notions showing the pull of opposing forces).

Bibliography: Victor Davis Hanson and David Horowitz have both written about this culture wars event: http://www.nationalreview.com/article/450749/confederate-statues-removed-while-racist-progressive-statues-remain, http://www.nationalreview.com/article/450689/erasing-history-censoring-confederate-past-rewriting-memory-mob-vengeance; https://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2017/08/24/the_progressive_war_against_the_dead_134819.html.

Other National Review commentary: http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/450706/what-do-confederate-statues-say; http://www.nationalreview.com/article/450551/confederate-statues-republicans-democrats-should-let-them-be.

And, by David Horowitz: http://www.frontpagemag.com/fpm/267676/racist-attacks-america-and-trump-david-horowitz. (I agree with DH on the connotations of “white supremacy” but he doesn’t go far enough. “Cultural Marxism” was not  primarily about the “racism” that DH deplores, but about balance/stability as delivered by “antifascist” social democrats in the “Popular Front.” (See https://clarespark.com/2009/08/25/t-w-adorno-and-his-funny-idea-of-genuine-liberalism/.)

Here are some neglected aspects of the “culture wars”: https://clarespark.com/2013/01/02/index-to-blogs-on-culture-wars/).


October 24, 2011

Turning points in the ascent/decline of the West

Victor Davis Hanson and George W. Bush

[Added 12-14-11: David P. Goldman (“Spengler”) says that modernity started with Mt. Sinai and Moses. He emphasized the personal relationship with the Jewish God–a God with whom one could argue because [Yahweh] was not perfect. I had not thought of this before, but it explains why Melville was often read as  Jew by Christians, for his “quarrel with God” especially as Captain Ahab.]

[Added July 2, 2013: Read this first: https://clarespark.com/2011/04/03/progressives-the-luxury-debate-and-decadence/.]

Victor Davis Hanson has written an essay for Pajamas Media, 10-24-11 “Rage On—and on and on.” His subject is the PC college education the Occupy Wall Street movement has received, contrasting theirs with his own classical education at Santa Cruz in the 1970s. Dr. Hanson writes, “Politicking was rare even in the 1970s. Well over thirty years ago, I took some 30 courses in Greek and Latin language and literature at UC Santa Cruz, and another 12 PhD seminars at Stanford — all from whom in retrospect I would imagine were mostly hard left. But who knew? Not once in eight years of undergraduate or graduate education did a liberal professor go off topic to rant or, indeed, to mix politics with history or literature or language. There were no points given for politically correct answers. No sermonizing poured forth from the rostrum.”

There is some support for his position. See the photo illustrating a demonstration at Stanford University, in the early 1980s, when I clipped it from the New York Times: https://clarespark.com/2009/10/31/the-offing-of-martin-luther-king-jr-and-ralph-bunche/.

What Dr. Hanson does not notice is that the 1960s-70s antiwar movement drove many of the protesters into graduate school (for some, avoiding the draft), and it took some time for them to get their doctorates. After that, a buddy system insured that new hires would be agreeable to the “negative critique” (as the Frankfurt School advised) of U.S. and even all of Western history, especially the Enlightenment. Though such critical theorists as Herbert Marcuse complained about “repressive tolerance” (see https://clarespark.com/2013/07/04/independence-and-the-marketplace-of-ideas/), while others in his clique blamed mass culture for the rise of Hitler, their German Idealist epistemology  (i.e., radical subjectivism) would be useful to the Harvard liberals and their allies who promoted a modified multicultural welfare state that would absorb dissent from below in the new “inclusiveness.” That plus an aggressive recruitment of minorities in the more elite universities to pacify 1960s urban riots led to an all-out assault upon “whiteness” and the popularity of “interdisciplinary” i.e., cultural anthropology courses, that came to encompass the humanities, wiping out universalist ethics in the name of cultural relativism. Radical subjectivism was in, American exceptionalism (with its deplorable protofascist “mass culture”) was out.

At the same time, there was an older generation of professors ready to grant the New Leftists tenure, for the anti-imperialist, antiwar, anti-American tradition had multiple adherents, some of them Stalinoid if not actively Leninist (see https://clarespark.com/2011/04/09/jean-francois-revel-and-father-mapple/).

It takes a long time for cultures to change so drastically. Here are a few turning points, echoing my own research interests, that could lead either to a more thoughtful polity, or to a proto-fascist rejection of liberalism, eighteenth-century style, and especially the rejection of an excellent popular education, for without universal education, the notion of representative government must degenerate into oligarchy:

  1. The invention of the printing press helped the Reformation.
  2. The scientific revolution and the English Civil War emboldened freedom of conscience and the acceptability of  improvement of the material conditions of this world, rather than focusing all hopes for happiness on the afterlife.
  3. The Enlightenment terrified Kings, nobles, and aristocratic hierarchies, so their preferred writers counter-attacked with the Terror-Gothic style in art and life, scaring everyone with mad scientist stories and the Christ-refusing Wandering Jew who longed for death.
  4. The American Revolution, followed by the French Revolution, raised the increasingly frightening Hydra heads of “popular sovereignty”—that would have made education the basis for a rational politics. Ordinary people (the radical Whigs) were studying and discussing fine points of law, history, and philosophy among themselves. But the fight between Federalists and Antifederalists set the stage for future conflicts, unresolved today, between the few and the many, i.e., natural aristocrats versus the less “worthy.” Populism did not suddenly emerge in the 1890s, but is visible in conflicts between debtors and creditors (Shay’s Rebellion) or in resistance to excise taxes (the Whiskey Rebellion). The output of Charles Beard in the early 20th century reflected these earlier suspicions of bond holders (see his still quoted but fallacious Economic Origins of the Constitution, 1913).
  5. The failure of Reconstruction after the American Civil War enabled the perpetuation of slavery by other means, e.g. debt-peonage and Jim Crow. Such ferocious treatment of the freedmen then engendered the beginnings of the civil rights movement, with its demand for education for all, but most especially the black population. It is often said that the South won the peace.
  6. The first world war enabled the Bolshevik coup in Russia, enchanting a whole generation of  intellectuals who thought that finally the Enlightenment and progress had been vindicated. To contain the Populist movement and then the Socialist Party and the IWW in America, Progressives (self-styled “moderate” conservatives) shifted into high leftish gear, co-opting the  populist program and gradually increased the reach of the state for  purposes of “social justice”—and social justice and the ethical state had a long history in the U.S., starting with the debates over the Constitution from the mid-1770s onward.
  7. The Great Depression and the growth of leftish sympathies among the intelligentsia, along with fears for another Depression that would follow demobilization from the looming world war, inspired “socially responsible capitalism” and the adoption of Keynesian economics by key leaders in education, business, and social psychology by 1942. Collectivism and culturalism ruled. Frederick Merk at Harvard inveighed against American expansionism, while the Talcott Parsons cohort at Harvard called a halt to the Enlightenment, such as it was at that time. The liberal foundations went to work to put a labor-friendly face on business, and funded such “community”-centered institutions as Pacifica Radio, that proudly declared their independence from filthy lucre. Today, NPR hosts raising public funds curl their lips at the mention of “corporate media,” which of course they are not.
  8. After the second world war, no one called a conference to examine the intensity of antisemitism in America and in the West. Yet many isolationists had blamed the Jews for American involvement in the war. But Rooseveltian internationalism/the United Nations ruled the day, and that meant competing with both the Soviets and Chinese Communists for the hearts and minds of the Third World.  Attention turned increasingly to the sins of the national past, and Melville was revived as a harsh critic of U.S. imperialism and racism, as “America’s greatest writer.” But his character  Captain Ahab could not be engaged on a quest for truth, or as a critic of Leviathan (the ever-growing State power), or as a radical puritan (see Paradise Lost) but as an “anticipation” of Stalin and Hitler. That impression is almost universally adopted today amongst the literati. Stalinists bonded with militant black nationalists, eschewing “integrationist” strategies, while bohemians went native, liking black entertainers as a release from puritanical upbringing.
  9. During the 1960s student strikes at such places as Columbia U. and Harvard, “moderate” professors at least sympathized with the strikers. The notion of the horrid corporate state (big business in bed with government against “the folks”) was standard fare in the humanities, and it was here that the anti-science, anti-materialist forces gained ever larger audiences. Enter Foucault and postmodernism, sex,     drugs, and rock ‘n roll as a replay of 1920s disillusion and nihilism. But by now we have reached the 1970s and 1980s, when PC and multiculturalism became institutionalized, as I found out to my horror when program director at KPFK in Los Angeles, and then later in graduate school at UCLA during the 1980s-early 90s. See my Pacifica memoirs, posted on the website (https://clarespark.com/2010/10/21/links-to-pacifica-memoirs/).

March 9, 2011

“What is history?”

     That was the name of a book by E. H. Carr, noted historian. Graduate students were supposed to read it in graduate school. However, this blog is about two kinds of “history” writing, incompatible with each other.

It is possible to write history within an entirely religious framework. 1. The deity intervenes in the everyday affairs of humanity, or 2. An undefined entity called “human nature” defies all attempts made by “secularists” to improve the condition of others and oneself, or 3. Civilizations rise and fall, hence there can be no “progress” based upon an improved study of the world around us, followed by measures taken to rectify the errors of the past.

I have encountered many historians writing under these assumptions: the cultural historians I mentioned who dominate the teaching of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction (see my blog https://clarespark.com/2011/02/27/remembering-ralph-bunche-american/, where their names are listed.) In one instance, the leading historian of this group wrote to me that the effects of slavery still lingered, though he did not say what they were, or how such a claim could be proven.

Similarly, today I read an essay by Victor Davis Hanson in National Review Online in which the author contrasted the “therapeutic” view of human nature (he doesn’t like it) with the “tragic view” that he does like, lamenting that it is to be found in literature and not a guide to political choices. It is worth noting that the tragic view has been rightly identified by some as the viewpoint of a declining class that peers into the future and sees nothing but darkness. In Greek tragedy, the hero fell because of hubris or pride. He should have understood that the gods were spinning our fate, and to defy their divine plans was to court the fate of Prometheus.

The other kind of historian is a Promethean, and is denounced as secularist by “traditionalists.” Count me in their city of the damned. These are our crimes against the fates.

1. We pry into the affairs of our betters. We read their private letters, diaries, and journals, along with their public pronouncements. But even their most private utterances are taken with a grain of salt, for they may be leaving a false record for posterity or may simply be fallible as we all are in dealing with touchy issues that are entangled with emotional defenses. It is sometimes said that only the mature historian should attempt biography. Young persons are still wet behind the ears, emotionally speaking. In any case, we footnote our sources so that others may check out our veracity in transmitting the historical record. It is outrageous that most publishers consign these to “endnotes” instead of putting them on the page where they are referenced.

2. We do not assume the role of analyst of today’s conflicts and events, for we have not access to primary source materials, unless they are leaked, and even then we have only hints. Our betters tend to keep the good stuff away from the public eye. That is why James O’Keefe’s sting operation in exposing the views of  NPR executive  Ron Schiller is arousing hysteria in liberal circles.

3. We do not use the past as a foreshadowing or “anticipation” of the future. Unless we are Hegelian Marxists, there is no telos. And even Marx said once that men make history, but not under conditions of their own choosing. Too bad he went into prophet mode in his most influential work. But that is what organic thinkers do. For them, human history is analogous to the life cycle of a plant (e.g. Goethe), but we are not plants. Historians should study the past so that we may move on, while respecting the power of the human will and imagination to avoid preventable disasters and to increase the life chances for those who are needlessly burdened and slaughtered. We cannot be, must not be, “activist scholars” for that presumes a god-like omniscience or obeisance to a social movement; perhaps too that there is a telos or predetermined course for history, which we are hurrying on or making with our timely interventions. It is hard enough to do any kind of helpful history, given the sources at hand. But we can and must compare competing narratives of the past as disseminated by politicians, pundits, and all other communicators. Nothing and no one is sacred, especially not our own work. Writing history entails reconfiguring the past and sometimes, with new evidence,  overthrowing our own most cherished assumptions. If we can’t do that, we don’t deserve the name of scholar, but are courtiers or theologians.  Which is fine, only don’t pretend to be a participant in the Enlightenment or in the profession of  writing history.

4. Herman Melville, when queried, answered that he was neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but realistic. That is why I continue to read Melville and inspect the distortions of his work promulgated by optimists and pessimists.  Historians had better be close readers.

April 5, 2010

Is POTUS Crazy?

Edgar Allan Poe

[I am adding this query to what was a popular blog: If Obama is actually suffering from a narcissistic disorder, what might be the effect of close advisors stepping down? What would be the effect of substantial Republican gains on November 2?  For a follow-up blog that quotes this one see https://clarespark.com/2012/04/06/diagnosing-potus/.]

Roger Simon, CEO of Pajamas Media, posted his article “President Weirdo” on April 3, 2010, postulating the Obama’s conduct suggested a serious personality disorder. It generated 263 or more comments, some of them exhibiting great fear of what may lie in store for us. I posted Roger’s article on my Facebook page, and was reminded that Charles Krauthammer, trained in psychiatry, had also mentioned that Obama was narcissistic,* while Michael Callis, another of my Facebook friends, a professional psychologist, thinks that Obama may be a “malignant narcissist.” By contrast, Victor Davis Hanson wrote a piece, published in Pajamas Media today, on Obama as a postmodernist (i.e., as a Third World ideologue), without additional commentary as to his possibly pathological mental states.  Still other highly visible opponents of Obama (Glenn Beck for instance) continue to see him as a Leninist/progressive with an agenda derived from community organizer Saul Alinsky. (The latter two diagnoses are close to democratic leftist law professor and blogger Stephen Diamond, who comments on the “social justice” mafia pushing identity politics as Obama’s chief allies. Cf. https://clarespark.com/2010/04/08/racism-modernity-modernism/, posted today, April 8).

This blog will try to place these diagnoses in an historical context, and comment too on the uncertainties that historians face when describing the personalities of great men and women.

It was not long ago when psychohistory was all the rage in political science and history circles. Figures such as Michael Rogin (authors of studies of Nixon, Reagan, and Andrew Jackson) and Peter Loewenberg became celebrities in their respective fields. But by the time I hit graduate school at UCLA in 1983, such studies were thought to be ridiculously reductive. I remember (Trotskyist) Professor Robert Brenner, with (social democratic) Professor Loewenberg in attendance, telling his seminar that in his view, putting all your analytic eggs on relationships in the family of origin was absurd. And before this instance, Philip Rieff took  Freud to task for ignoring history as the engine for human conduct. Similarly, professional psychiatrists, epistemological materialists that they are,  tend now to dispense medication for problems ranging from anxiety attacks to schizophrenia.

Psychoanalysis is often mocked as the ineffectual and expensive “talking cure,” while clinical psychologists are as divided among themselves as to clinical method as are psychoanalysts, with their famous internal debates between Kleinians, Jungians, orthodox Freudians, neo-Freudians, eclectics, etc.     So it takes a lot of self-confidence for someone without a Dr. after his name to propose that the President of the United States might be possessed of mental states that are dangerous to our national and personal security.  I am siding with Roger Simon here, perhaps because I am defending my own work as an intellectual historian along with his and that of every honorable artist. Although existentialists and their postmodern descendants will scoff at his/my (bourgeois) hubris, if you can’t think yourself into another person’s head, if you cannot piece together a history of thoughts and actions in your subject, then you have nothing to say, and nothing to give to the world but received opinions and other official platitudes. You might as well put down your pen and find a job that earns you an honest living.

The suggestion that POTUS might be a “malignant narcissist” is particularly intriguing to me. And here is where one might be able to collapse all the competing narratives as to Obama’s mental states into one historical explanation.  Read the Wikipedia article on that diagnosis, and note that “malignant narcissism” is not in DSM-IV, though narcissistic personality disorder is, and narcissism is a feature of other personality disorders as the authors of DSM-IV defined them. It is conceivable to me that Obama’s family history (especially the abandonment by his father and who-knows-what-relationships with his doting mother and doting grandparents), set him up to be the perfect candidate for ambitious politicians in Chicago, who could count on the incoherent constituencies of the Democratic Party (big labor, public sector employees, cultural nationalist minorities, dependents of the welfare state, feminists, gays, veterans of the civil rights movement, wealthy liberal Jews, post60s academics and journalists, liberal internationalists, environmentalists) to be taken in by his charisma and passionate promises for a national healing that would reconcile the irreconcilable demands and interests of  his base, an equally apocalyptic change inside the Washington  Beltway, and an avowedly anti-imperialist foreign policy. It makes sense too, in explaining his obvious rage at being criticized and blocked, to suspect that his “narcissistic supplies” are threatened. As for the grandiosity that characterizes the narcissist and other would-be healers or “moderates”, such a high opinion of himself attracts others who aspire to greatness and a cohesive human community, and who therefore tend to idealize him and overlook his contradictory statements and broken promises–for he could not and can not please the diverse elements of the base that elected him and continues to support him.

I recall that one analyst of pathological narcissism (Kohut? Kernberg? Klein?) mentions the coexistence of grandiosity and emptiness that exists simultaneously in the same breast.  If you read the Wikipedia article, note that the more power the malignant narcissist gets, the more dangerous he becomes, and the more paranoid. Even if you do not find this suggestion of a pathological personality disorder to be persuasive, and prefer an ideological explanation instead (“transnational progressivism,” postmodern anti-imperialism, crypto-Leninism), there is no way to please everyone in a “mixed economy” that depends on redistribution alone to stave off “disruption” or worse. One must step outside the premises of progressivism with its incoherence and double binds (see https://clarespark.com/2010/03/10/jonah-goldbergs-liberal-fascism-part-one/ in which I criticize JG for not seeing the double bind inflicted by the authoritarian liberals who are at bottom organic conservatives averse to rupture, though they do not call themselves that).

In closing, I must add that when I read Obama’s first book in early 2008, I became alarmed and suspicious, for it was obvious to me as a reader that there was not one coherent voice in the narrative (could there be, given the diverse interests of his audience?), and moreover, that he could not possibly have remembered all the incidents from his childhood in such detail. In the acknowledgments, he thanks his mother for refreshing his memory and helping him with the writing (tell me, reader, if I am wrong). I should also say that all the opinions expressed in this blog are provisional and speculative, but then so is medicine and its related fields in mental health. But without the power of such free thought, tireless in its search for clues, we are mindless followers, not citizens. Hail to thee, Roger L. Simon, C. Auguste Dupin, Captain Ahab, John Milton (!), Sigmund Freud, and all those other Prometheans who have leaped from light into darkness.

*Obama was described as “narcissistic” by David Remnick in his Jon Stewart interview,  4-8-10. Remnick’s bio is entitled The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama. Has anyone commented on the odd title? Is Obama the Savior who has rescued America from right-wing materialism and racism? There is narcissism and narcissism. One definition of healthy narcissism refers to the ability to soothe oneself without “supplies” from the outer world. But for centuries the myth of Narcissus was deployed by organic thinkers to stigmatize the dissenting individual/mad scientist, who was deemed indifferent to Echo (the call of community and social responsibility). Think Dollhouse; think Flash Forward.

[Added, Dec.15, 2010: Narcissistic personality disorder is being dropped from DSM-V. We don’t know why. Has Obama become more dangerous since November 2 as his narcissistic supplies fade away? Dinesh D’Souza diagnoses him as a post-colonialist; Dick Morris sees him as a conventional social democrat (not a communist). His most left-leaning base is predicting a one-term presidency. And I continue to be baffled, but most impressed by the incoherence of both political parties, and his erratic behavior, moving from committed radical to “centrist” compromiser as opportunistic and a sign of his determination to stay in power. Meanwhile, Robert Reich calls for a vast new statist initiative to reinstate the WPA, rebuild the country’s infrastructure, financed with a perfectly reasonable 70 % federal income tax on the idle, non-consuming enough rich. Thorstein Veblen, where are you when we need you?

I had a thought that was cut off on Facebook. All this speculation about Obama’s mental states sells books and rivets audience to the great mystery of his personality. I say, go back to the coalitions that comprise both major parties and ask yourself how you could please everyone in your party if you were president. The No Label, neo-moderate solution is yet another evasion of the conflicting interests that have always characterized our democracy, and that no amount of compromise can resolve. We are not yet fully modern. Remnants of tribalism, antiquity, and feudalism remain undefeated and there is little agreement on what is truly “modern.”

Is the essence of modernity irrationalism? I hope not.

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