The Clare Spark Blog

February 27, 2013

“American exceptionalism” retold

american-progress-ideation2I have already compiled a list of turning points for the ascent/decline of “the West” here: But the purpose of this blog is to suggest a counter-narrative for American history, warts and all. The goal is to find an approach to US history that will not leave students or your home-schooled child adrift with lifeboats offering only tendentious accounts of US history, and offering either idealized or demonized versions of the American past. (For a patriotic account by “America’s greatest writer” see, or try this more recent one:

In a short blog, I can outline only some major points.

First, to present a corrected version of US history, it cannot be rooted solely in America, with non-whites the hapless victims of murderous European-born whites. During the age of expansion, conflicts between France, England, Spain and the Netherlands were critical. Had Americans not expanded West, say by hugging the Atlantic coast, there might subsequently have been a jigsaw of European colonies like the map of Africa in the late 19th century and onward.

Second, westward expansion also exacerbated conflict between the industrializing North and slaveholding South. Without an economic history of these regions, US history and the politics of expansion remain incomprehensible.

Third, although ethnocentrism can be found in many cultures, racism in the U.S. directed against non-whites was a by-product* of American (and world) economic development (see, or But anti-imperialists deny that racism has been partly corrected, insisting that “institutional racism” persists despite the civil rights movement and its achievements. (I do not mean to minimize the effects of racism: see Nor would the anti-Americans examine the obliteration of high Western and American culture, substituting a popular culture that is mostly primitivist. Going native is a major cause of mass psychological regression to a stage of life where “adults” are over-influenced by parental surrogates and other ideologically tainted authority. Such primitivist regression is rarely criticized by hipster democrats; by contrast, communists accept a notion of Progress that ineluctably leads to Leninist bureaucratic centralism and that demonizes ‘capitalism’/market society as an imposition by filthy lucre and their “commercial” mass media.

Fourth, infuriated by leftist critics of US imperialism (often concentrated in the blue states), some “red state” patriots argue that the warts are removed, that American self-criticism has lifted us out of the Slough of Despond, and that the concept of American exceptionalism should be rehabilitated. This is a shallow judgment, though I partly agree. Urban decay and a rotting public school system for inner city kids remains an unsolved problem, one of many, including massive waste and fraud at every level of government.

Fifth, not enough weight is given to the bounty of Nature that greeted the first European settlers, an abundance preserved by mostly hunter-gatherer Indian tribes that famously refused “development.” Much of American economic success battened off the virgin land, and we are evading real environmental problems if we imagine that the Green movement is nothing but a communist plot in all its manifestations. (See Bob Ennis’s comment below, with which I concur.)

Sixth, though some “traditionalists” on the Right prefer a view of the Constitution as divinely inspired,  we do better by our children and ourselves to celebrate cultural and political pluralism. The secular state does not signify atheism, communism, and the end of pluralism, but rather secularism is the guarantee of personal freedom and the unmatched luxury of individuality. It is in our Bill of  Rights, along with the relatively free markets that are responsible for unprecedented upward mobility and wealth creation, that “American exceptionalism” really exists.

*There used to be a debate among historians whether racism caused slavery, or whether slavery caused racism, but it is now the case that major scholars treat “racism” as an independent variable, and indeed they claim that racism is the engine of U.S. history, a flaw so terrible and omnipresent that reparations are demanded. Do not underestimate the determination and penetration of non-white cultural nationalists. See, also the illustration above, which takes its cue from Diego Rivera’s Stalinist murals, with a strong dose of the Fantastic and Surrealism.

October 27, 2012

Melville, Orwell, Doublethink

 This is my second major Orwell blog: see for the first one.

During my recent forays into the changing interpretations of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four (1949), I was surprised to learn that Orwell had read passages from Herman Melville’s White-Jacket (1850) while broadcasting on the BBC during the early years of WW2. Specifically, he excerpted a gory description of a naval doctor performing an unnecessary and fatal amputation on a wounded U.S. sailor. Elsewhere in White-Jacket, HM had sharply and vividly written about “flogging through the fleet,” a practice that he abhorred, possibly because he had been caned as a child by his own father. Indeed, Roy Porter sent me an ad from a British newspaper offering White-Jacket as sadomasochistic porn. (On the dynamics of sadomasochism see

Though at least one Orwell biographer (Jeffrey Meyers) has emphasized GO’s masochism, I have not found a source yet that relates where the conception of Doublethink originated. Did Orwell know about “cognitive dissonance” from experience, or reading, or had he read Melville’s Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852), where Melville not only describes his mother’s frequent mixed messages, but invents “Plinlimmon’s Pamphlet” that praises “virtuous expediency” as the best morality attainable on this deceptive earth. My book on the Melville Revival (Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival)  is nearly entirely devoted to this theme of the double bind/cognitive dissonance/virtuous expediency, all of which signify what Orwell chose to call Doublethink.

Here are the double binds that I suggest were made apparent in Melville’s novels, and then may have driven his academic revivers in the 20th century into all manner of psychogenic symptoms and illnesses. (It is my contention that Melville readers who wished to advance in academe had to suppress the evidence before them in order to please the reigning ideology in the universities that employed them, so many derided Melville/Ahab as crazy, while defending Plinlimmon’s sensible philosophy, that they attributed to their “moderate” Melville/Ishmael .) But first take Doublethink in Pierre.

  1. There is no conflict between “truth” and Order. Mary Glendinning, Pierre’s mother in the novel, wants her son “just emerging from his teens” to grow into a manly individual, but not such an individual that he disobeys her choice  in choosing his future wife, who will also be perfectly obedient to her wishes.
  2. Pierre is expected to revere his dear perfect (Christian) father, but he must not be so good a Christian as to rescue from near-beggary his “natural” half-sister Isabel.
  3. Pierre reads the double bind, jilts his mother-chosen fiancée, runs off with Isabel, and mother dies of insanity. This book will not end well. (See Pierre’s scolding mother in this hard to find set of illustrations by Maurice Sendak, for a truncated edition of Pierre.

In the much quoted Father Mapple’s sermon in Moby-Dick, the abolitionist preacher speaks of snatching the truth even if it lies hidden under the skirts of judges and Senators. It is unclear here whether “truth” signifies the truth of Christ, or of the truth as defined by lawyers (or today, scientists). But it is a fact that during Captain Ahab’s speech on “the quarter-deck”, he declares that “Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.” Since Ahab is widely described as a blasphemer, I suspect that it is empirical truth that the relatively powerless see, and which is denied by their superiors, that Melville meant to call out. Which links him now to Orwell’s famous “dystopia.”

For Winston Smith works in “the Ministry of Truth” where he rewrites history to suit the propaganda requirements of Big Brother and the Inner Party. Recall Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (1938), where he denounces journalists for taking the Soviet line that all anarchists and Trotskyists were in league with Franco’s fascists. John Dos Passos, in Century’s Ebb, remembered Orwell as an individualist striking out at those man-made institutions that forced him to lie for the sake of Order. Compare Dos’s elevation of Orwell as truth-seeker to the trendier line that Orwell, like Melville, was a premature anti-imperialist, and for that alone we honor his life and work.

[Added 11-10-12 Dos quote: )“If one thinks of the artist as…an autonomous individual who owes nothing to society, then the golden age of the artist was the age of capitalism. He had then escaped the patron and had not yet been captured by the bureaucrat…. Yet it remains true that capitalism, which in many ways was kind to the artist and to the intellectual generally, is doomed and is not worth saving anyway. So you arrive at these two antithetical facts: (1) Society cannot be arranged for the benefit of artists; (2) without artists civilisation perishes. I have not yet seen this dilemma solved (there must be a solution), and it is not often that it is honestly discussed.” (George Orwell, in TRIBUNE, 1944). Quoted by Arthur M. Eckstein, “George Orwell’s Second Thoughts on Capitalism,” The Revised Orwell, ed. Jonathan Rose (Michigan State UP, 1992), p.204.

Another double bind that is especially relevant today:  There is no conflict between national identity and international identity. Hence, the United Nations is our best bet to avoid wars of the catastrophic magnitude of the world wars of the 20th century, or to halt “voter suppression” on November 6, 2012. Such are the psychic requirements of political correctness, the term itself an example of Doublethink, for facts (correctness) are non-partisan. Melville’s takedown of “virtuous expediency” is more to the point.

For a related blog see For “political correctness” as decorum, an idea passed out by liberal elites, see, especially the suggestion by Christopher Edley, whose career has been remarkable.

April 10, 2011

“Who ain’t a slave?”

Rockwell Kent drawing, 1927

The deeper meaning of Ishmael’s query to the reader, “Who ain’t a slave? Tell me that,” was raised in my prior blog. I took this up in my book Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival, chapter 3. Here is an excerpt with its footnotes. I relied upon a published typescript written by two leftist professors who were making a case for working-class abolitionism. I likened the utopian socialism of Brook Farm, with its patrician deviation from American industrialization (Hawthorne had been there briefly, and parodied it in The Blithedale Romance) to “Ishmael” and his upper-class rebellion.

[Book excerpt:] Had Melville switched from radical to conservative, or was his fiction of the 1850s, situated in its full historical context, always acceptable to conservative readers and publishers, especially those sympathetic to the Jeffersonian agrarian critique of industrial capitalism, a belief-system agreeable to Southern planters who had claimed that “wage slavery” was worse than chattel slavery and that African savages were benefited by the civilizing influence of their Christian owners? Utopian socialists and land reformers alike possessed an organic, communitarian view of the ideal society and gradualist schemes for how to get there; they generally were not based in the working class,[i] and their spleen was directed against abolitionists like Charles Sumner or the Garrisonians whom they relentlessly slandered as bourgeois individualists indifferent to the welfare of Northern workers. “Who ain’t a slave? Tell me that,” says an (apparently) resigned and passive Ishmael in “Loomings,” the first chapter of Moby-Dick, where the narrator identifies the “story of Narcissus” as “the key to it all.”[ii]

Only land ownership, it was believed by patrician radical reformers, could preserve independence and republican virtue. I have inferred from Melville’s writing that he shared their fantasy that the process of proletarianization would inevitably cause massacres perpetrated by landless, hence impoverished and demoralized masterless men (and yet he sneeringly calls one conformist in White Jacket “Landless”: hence “the Melville problem”).  Of course the abolition movement was not monolithic: the modernizers who controlled the new Republican Party were eager to rid the country of Southern domination of both parties (Whig and Democratic) that had hampered expansion and industrial development with free labor; the more progressive among them (writing in The National Era or The National Antislavery Standard) expected future adjustments in the relations between capital and labor, but certainly not drastic structural transformation. There was, however, a substantial and vocal working-class abolitionist constituency with international moral and intellectual support, and for them abolition was the immediate objective that made more equitable class relations possible; they denounced the “Associationists” (Fourierists) and land reformers as knowingly or unknowingly complicit with Southern interests and proslavery apologetics. [iii]

Melville did not publish in The Voice of Industry or The Liberator orother periodicals that presented dialogue between the various factions of the antislavery movement; instead such confrontations found their way into his fiction. Most disturbingly, he transformed successful slave revolts (for instance, the episodes of the Creole and Amistad) into the disaster of Benito Cereno that brought everyone down. The question remains: during the decade of accelerating national crisis and dramatic political realignment was his political stance that of a neutral party? Was he a subtly reactionary amanuensis of Southern agrarian interests? [Since I wrote this, I have reread George Fitzhugh’s Cannibals All! (1857): I believe now that Melville was indeed the organic conservative that many  have suspected, and that his proletarian years convinced him that free labor was hardly free.] Or could he have been a covert partisan of the most advanced materialists (at least on those occasions when he was not overwhelmed with feelings of responsibility for the decline of his family)? [Some believe that such romantic radicalism as he frequently displayed was probably owing to his outsider status as either a closet or practicing homosexual.]

[i] 40. See William Lloyd  Garrison’s critique of the non-threatening character of Fourierism as compared to the antislavery movement, June 14, 1850, while debating William Ellery Channing at the 1850 Antislavery Convention: “What signal success has yet crowned the Fourier movement…? What alarm, what commotion has it caused throughout the country? What mob has howled upon its track? To what extent has it secured the confidence and awakened the zeal of the white laboring classes? Where are its multitudinous supporters! They are non est inventus. I am not speaking reproachfully, but dealing with facts. On the other hand, how eventful has been the history of the anti-slavery movement! What discussion and conflict, what agitation and tumult, what tremor and consternation, in Church and State, among all sects and parties, have marked its triumphant career! And how many have been induced to become its advocates and supporters! Is not this an evidence of rare vitality?” Garrison goes on to accuse “the Socialists” (i.e. the utopian socialists) of racism and sexism. (Philip Foner and Herbert Shapiro, Northern Labor and Antislavery, 172-173.)

[ii] 41. If Melville is seriously identified with Ishmael here, then he has repudiated White-Jacket (who scorns the lackey Happy Jack) and every other one of his democratic rebels. The tone is joking and ironic; perhaps such teasing of the conservative reader (including Hawthorne) constitutes the “wickedness” of the book.

[iii] 42. See Foner and Shapiro, Northern Labor and Antislavery. For the land reformer critique of abolitionism (wage slavery was worse than chattel slavery), see George Henry Evans, Young America, 11 Mar. 1848 (174-178).  On the comparable conditions of wage and chattel slavery, see John Pickering, National Reformer (184-185), or Evans, Working Man’s Advocate, 27 July  1844 (189-91). On international support for abolitionism, see “Address From the People of Ireland,” signed by “Daniel O’Connell, Theobald Matthew, and Sixty Thousand other Inhabitants of Ireland, published in The Liberator,  21 Mar. 1842 (114-116). See also “Address to Mr. Collins,” a statement by Glasgow workers, in Herald of Freedom (Concord, New Hampshire) 4 June 1841 (236-41), and the racist plea to Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor to abandon his support for abolitionism, published in Working Man’s Advocate 22 June 1844 (186-189).
[end, book excerpt]

March 28, 2011

Index to multiculturalism blogs

As I have shown throughout this website, the turn to “cultural history” or “multiculturalism” marked a sea change in the writing of American history. But few have traced the intellectual history of multiculturalism. I attribute this to an upper-class “moderate” response to movements from below. Here are a few of the blogs I have written that trace this widespread social pedagogy to its origins in the reaction of German Romantics to the “mechanical materialists” of the earlier 18th century French Enlightenment, though tribalism (ethnic ties) has a long history in human history. (quotes Herman Melville’s White-Jacket) (on Gemeinschaft vs. Gesellschaft as defined by Toennies) (Read this first!)

September 6, 2009

The Hebraic American Landscape: Sublime or Despotic?

Daniel Boone and entourage

In one of my blogs tracing the impact of multiculturalism in the U.S. (,  I argued that “progressives” in numerous disciplines have been writing history as a subset of a poetic natural history, taking their cues from German Romanticism. In today’s blog, written as millions of American children return to school after Labor Day to be taught the national biography by teachers influenced by  progressive historians, such as Frederick Jackson Turner, I contrast their negative assessments of the American Sublime with that of Herman Melville’s character White-Jacket in his most Hebraic pronouncement.

The BBC series American Visions, was written and presented by Australian-born Robert Hughes, played by PBS and sponsored by BMW.  The segments plainly linked Chosen People, Barnum-esque 19th century landscape painters of the sublime (distinguished from the quiet Luminists and the retiring celibate Winslow Homer), frontiersmen, nouveaux riches money and its offspring Hollywood. Together these sinister forces have raped the Indians and the environment and romanticized the short-lived Old West with malevolent nativist intent.  In Hughes’ rendering, the appropriation of the land was total and uncontested: “It’s ours” says a proud American, a woman on the rim of the Grand Canyon, remarking on the interest taken by foreign tourists in the sublimity of the American landscape.  Not atypically, Frederick Jackson Turner is cited as author of the frontier theory of American identity as if he approved of it.  In fact, Turner was appalled by the growth of monopoly that rendered Marx’s predictions plausible; it would be a small step to transfer social control of a few huge industries to popular control; the antimonopoly populist movement, active while Turner wrote his famous essay on the closing of the frontier (1893), was a warning to prescient conservatives.

The Hughes version of the nineteenth century is the narrative favored by the American Studies movement and many other cultural anthropologists/historians.  In my view, the discipline is a Tory leftover deployed against their enemies, the radical Whigs, also Turner’s target. Following their trajectory of Nature’s Nation and its popular landscape paintings, it is first and foremost the physiognomy of the wild West that has determined American kitsch taste, its vulgarity and arrogant claims to superior moral purity, the latter signified by the gorgeous light pervading these landscapes.  Here is their Master Narrative: The God revered by the Chosen People does not smile on the gift of the senses, reason, and cultural freedom in the service of social amelioration and intellectual and moral development of each and every individual; rather the light of the Hebrew God oversees Manifest Destiny in its most brutal projects of annihilation. In the opinion of one prominent literary historian, the  American Sublime is “the end of the line” for humanity (a notion reiterated in film noir, see

In a book that energized anti-Melville forces from the late 1920s on, “White-Jacket” gave a ringing meaning to youth revolt that was unmistakably Hebraic/radical Protestant. It was the sublimity of a visionary republic that brought melancholy to dispossessed aristocrats, energizing the measures taken in retribution:

“…in many things, we Americans are driven to a rejection of the maxims of the Past, seeing that, ere long, the van of the nationals must, of right, belong to ourselves. There are occasions when it is for America to make precedents, and not to obey them. We should, if possible, prove a teacher to posterity, instead of being the pupil of bygone generations. More shall come after us than have gone before; the world is not yet middle-aged.

Escaped from the house of bondage, Israel of old did not follow after the ways of the Egyptians. To her was given an express dispensation; to her were given new things under the sun. And we Americans are the peculiar, chosen people–the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world. Seventy years ago we escaped from thrall; and, besides our first birthright–embracing one continent of earth–God has given to us, for a future inheritance, the broad domains of the political pagans, that shall yet come and lie down under the shade of our ark, without bloody hands being lifted. God has predestinated, mankind expects, great things from our race; and great things we feel in our souls. The rest of the nations must soon be in our rear. We are the pioneers of the world; the advance-guard, sent on through the wilderness of untried things, to break a new path in the New World that is ours. In our youth is our strength; in our inexperience our wisdom. At a period when other nations have but lisped, our deep voice is heard afar. Long enough have we been skeptics with regard to ourselves, and doubted whether, indeed the political Messiah had come. But he has come in us, if we would but give utterance to his promptings. And let us always remember that with ourselves, almost for the first time in the history of earth, national selfishness is unbounded philanthropy; for we cannot do a good to America, but we give alms to the world.” [White-Jacket (1850), Ch.36, my emph., quoted in Hunting Captain Ahab, chapter 4]

Since the late 1930s, numerous scholars have claimed that Captain Ahab was an arch-imperialist, compared by many to Hitler and Stalin. Was White-Jacket’s statement made in the spirit of Jefferson and world republican revolution or in the spirit of James Polk’s defense of slavery and expansion at the expense of Indians and Mexicans? Given Melville’s constant references to abused South Sea islanders, Indians, sailors and factory workers, these words need not be taken as crypto-imperialist, unless one confuses political emancipation with slavery or self-assertion with self-sacrifice, which some anti-imperialist scholars may have done. [See a retitled blog “Manifest Destiny or Political Liberty? . An extended endnote, updated here, followed this book excerpt and ends the blog:]

[Endnote:] Compare with White-Jacket’s approbation of a Hebraic America, Melville’s well-known comments in Israel Potter on America as “intrepid, unprincipled, reckless, predatory, with boundless ambition, civilized in externals but a savage at heart” (Chapter XIX), but also the “essentially Western” Ethan Allen: “frank, bluff, companionable as a Pagan, convivial, a Roman, hearty as a harvest” (Chapter XXII). David Brion Davis has used the White-Jacket quote as an example of Manifest Destiny in Antebellum American Culture: An Interpretive Anthology (Lexington, Mass: Heath, 1979). Similarly, Eric Foner, in a talk “The Struggle For Freedom,” delivered at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon, has cited the White-Jacket passage as an example of American forgetfulness of the past, its (selfish) future-orientation with respect to the notion of freedom, and its moralistic imposition of American values upon different societies; Foner thus makes Melville an imperialist (KPFK broadcast, 7/5/99). I am questioning these judgments.

American nationalism (as expressed in the American and French Revolutions, and constantly invoked by the anti-slavery Senator from Massachusetts Charles Sumner) had an ideological component that asserted the common good against privilege; it was not simply a claim for territory, language or ethnicity as conservative nationalism would be.  Compare the liberal nationalism defended by Charles Sumner* with that of Andrew Stark, “Adieu, Liberal Nationalism,” New York Times, 11/2/95. The author, a teacher of management at the University of Toronto, defines liberal nationalism in terms of primal differentiation from the mother, making it “even more irrational than chauvinistic nationalism. Bereft of any appeal to ‘mystical’ qualities like race, religion and culture, it relies on more primal, elusive entities like consciousness, existence, sense of self.” Stark’s definition reveals the depoliticizing inherent in any and all “identity” politics.

One standard reference in the field of American Studies is Ernest Tuveson, Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America’s Millennial Role (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1965), 51. Tuveson first presents Marxism as counter-Enlightenment, then links it to millennial movements in Britain and the U.S. The mocking epigraph of the book is a statement by Woodrow Wilson: “America had the infinite privilege of fulfilling her destiny and saving the world.” Elsewhere he suggests a continuity of identity between “the young republic” (1), “the ancient Jewish tradition of apocalyptic” (2); the epic form and sublimity (5); and “the evil” of (naively hopeful) American participation in World War II (8). The passage from White-Jacket was quoted 156-57, without the analysis of context; Tuveson notes Melville’s apparent “profound disillusionment with these high expectations” in Clarel.

See also Edward Said, Culture And Imperialism (New York: Knopf, 1993). Said begins by defending anti-Western cultural nationalists from the charge of separatist chauvinism: “…far from invalidating the struggle to be free from empire, these reductions of cultural discourse actually prove the validity of a fundamental liberationist energy that animates the wish to be independent, to speak freely and without the burden of unfair domination (xx-xxi).” But this standard disappears when applied to Melville: “There is…a dense body of American writing, contemporary with the British and the French work, which shows a peculiarly acute imperial cast, even though paradoxically its ferocious anti-colonialism, directed at the Old World, is central to it. One thinks, for example, of the Puritan “errand into the wilderness” and, later, of that extraordinarily obsessive concern in Cooper, Twain, Melville and others with United States expansion westward, along with the wholesale colonization and destruction of native American life (as memorably studied by Richard Slotkin, Patricia Limerick, and Michael Paul Rogin); an anti-imperial motif emerges to rival the imperial one” (63). Puritans, Melville and Ahab now merge: (citing C.L.R. James and Victor Kiernan) “Captain Ahab is an allegorical representation of the American world quest; he is obsessed, compelling, unstoppable, completely wrapped up in his own rhetorical justification and his sense of cosmic symbolism” (288). Is Melville Ahab or not? Melville was critical of Ahab, Said notes, but follows his qualifier with the vehement scientistic statement, a non sequitur: “Yet the fact is that during the nineteenth century the U.S. did expand territorially.” Is Melville then a hypocrite? Commenting on the comparison between Saddam Hussein and Hitler during the Iraq war, Ahab is a cynical scapegoater: “Anyone who has read Moby-Dick may have found it irresistible to extrapolate from that great novel to the real world, to see the American empire preparing once again, like Ahab, to take after an imputed evil” (295).

Too much purity and stridency disturbs the pluralist peace: the “imputed evil” Americans profess to find in Third World dictatorships is a pretext for a more sinister domination. For a critique of the counter-Enlightenment “anti-imperialist” intellectuals, including Said, see Christopher Norris, Uncritical Theory: Postmodernism, Intellectuals and the Gulf War (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1992), 127-130: “To imagine that truth might at length win out through a detailed, critical, investigative treatment of the relevant source materials is merely to demonstrate one’s lingering attachment to the old Enlightenment paradigm” (127). Richard Rorty and his cohort in ‘postmodern bourgeois liberal pragmatist’ culture are practicing a cynical Realpolitik imposed from above (128). Counter-narratives don’t solve problems: we need facts (130). It must be said that none of the scholars upon whom Edward Said relies has done the empirical investigation of Melville and Ahab that could justify Said’s characterization of Ahab the crazed imperialist.**

*For Sumner’s views on liberal nationalism, see archived blog “Margoth v. Robert E. Lee: Rival Visions of National Unity.”

**Cf. Hume’s distinction between Presbyterians and Independents, History of England, Vol. 7, 18-19 (year 1644): “The enthusiasm of the [comparatively moderate, C.S.] Presbyterians led them to reject the authority of prelates, to throw off the restraint of liturgy, to retrench ceremonies, to limit the riches and authority of the priestly office: the fanaticism of the Independents, exalted to a higher pitch, abolished ecclesiastical government, disdained creeds and systems, neglected every ceremony, and confounded all ranks and orders. The soldier, the merchant, the mechanic, indulging the fervours of zeal, and guided by the illapses of the spirit, resigned himself to an inward and superior direction, and was consecrated, in a manner, by an immediate intercourse and communication with Heaven.” Ahab, a “fighting Quaker,” would seem to be an example of the latter.

September 3, 2009

Manifest Destiny or Political Liberty?

de Chirico imagines Apollinaire

The poet Apollinaire once wrote that he was more interested in what divided men than in what united them, and most of all, he said, he wanted to know what gnaws at their hearts. That sentiment remains uppermost in my thoughts, especially at this time when the U.S. is confronted with a health reform bill that proposes funding for preventive medicine and mental health services, even though there is zero agreement among practitioners as to what constitutes sound protocols in either of those fields. All my prior blogs have addressed this problem (see the entries on panic attacks, sadomasochism, social psychologists defining civilian morale and preventive politics or psychoanalyzing Hitler, embedded antisemitism, the Pacifica memoir, etc.).

Whatever I have learned throughout my long life about the human heart and its tangled emotions, the most original contributions have been gleaned from very close reading, particularly during the many years spent with Herman Melville (1819-1891), both as  man and writer. One reason that Melville has been claimed by readers and propagandists with incompatible politics is his constant switching from one point of view to another, changing sides or positions with breathtaking speed.  As I have argued throughout my book on the so-called Melville Revival, he never feels safe or at home wherever he may be on the questions that agitated the American nineteenth century–Jacksonian political styles and mass politics, westward expansion and Indian removal; abolitionism, Civil War, and Reconstruction; angry de-skilled artisans and a potentially mutinous new working class; evolution and the higher Biblical criticism; nascent socialism in Europe; naval discipline; and the growing power of women in the family–especially in their role as moral reformers, to a degree, displacing paternal authority.

[From Hunting Captain Ahab:]  The switches from one unsafe prospect to another are diverting. As “White-Jacket” (1850), Melville abruptly rejected the piecemeal reform he had just been advocating: his proposed ban on flogging could not end injustices meted out to enlisted men whose class interest in pacifism was “essentially” opposed by glory-seeking officers. White-Jacket fatally defined the situation that class collaborationists, fascist and antifascist alike, have ever attempted to render invisible:

“…can men, whose interests are diverse, ever hope to live together in a harmony uncoerced? Can the brotherhood of the race of mankind ever hope to prevail in a man-of-war, where one man’s bane is another man’s blessing? By abolishing the scourge, shall we do away with tyranny; that tyranny which must ever prevail, where of two essentially antagonistic classes in perpetual contact, one is immeasurably the stronger? [i]

Moreover as the black cook “Fleece” pointed out in Moby-Dick, “the sharks” did not care to be converted. Such “dark” perceptions were dangerous but essential to a morally ambitious artist faithful to social reality. If moral reform is only a blast of hot air, then structural transformation is on the agenda.

[i] 19. Quoted by H. Bruce Franklin, The Victim As Criminal And Artist, 39. Franklin uses this passage to make a claim for Melville as primitive communist. In Chapter XVI of his unpublished biography, the Progressive Henry A. Murray revealingly distorted the passage, minimizing Melville’s description of a structural antagonism. Rather, Melville is describing point of view as dependent on one’s place in the hierarchy: “War, for example, which offered officers their only opportunity for glory, was anticipated more eagerly by them than by the seamen.” Although Harvard professor Alan Heimert has identified Ahab with John Calhoun, neither White-Jacket nor Ahab condones coercive harmony. However, noting the differing interests of sailors and officers does not make Melville a Marxist. Cf. John Calhoun’s defense of slavery as a positive good: “…there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other…There is and always has been in an advanced stage of wealth and civilization, a conflict between labor and capital. The condition of society in the South exempts us from the disorders and dangers resulting from this conflict.” Quoted in Frederick Jackson Turner, The United States 1830-1850 (New York: Norton paperback, 1965), 197. [end book excerpt]

In my last blog, I distanced myself from the postmodernists, particularly those who rejected modernity and Enlightenment as elevating the protofascist “mob society” to use Hannah Arendt’s famous term. Melville, in one of his many personas, could do that too, perhaps because he suffered from double-binds that seemed specific to a science-driven world that was challenging the traditions that once made people feel at home in their skins. Astonishingly, in all my reading in the cures offered to “neurotic” or “nervous” patients from the late nineteenth century on, I found no recognition of the conflicts that Melville himself had identified throughout his oeuvre, but most blatantly in his “crazy” novel, Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852), which I view as Moby-Dick brought home to the family, with the writer Pierre as analog to Captain Ahab, two of Melville’s traveling company of Prometheans.

A good teacher is supposed to state clearly the hoped-for outcome of a curriculum (and this website is a sort of syllabus), so here goes:

Ideally, readers of my blogs should be able to identify ambiguities or conflicts (reconcilable or irreconcilable) specific to modernity. These include the search for truth vs. (upper-class) Order; intellectual independence vs. unswerving loyalty to family or state; capital vs. labor (? I used to think that this was so); science vs. religion; and (“rootless”) cosmopolitanism vs. narrow “racial” or “ethnic” identification or “pluralism” as “rooted” cosmopolitanism.  To the extent that the pseudo-moderate men attempt to reconcile conflicts that may be irreconcilable, they place citizens in Orwellian double-binds:  inverting knowledge and ignorance, praise and humiliation, freedom and slavery. It follows that participatory politics and other processes intended to legitimate authority are stymied if these inversions operate inside us.  So we end up with unquestioned allegiance to a favorite pundit, and relinquish thinking for ourselves.

It is not my claim that no reforms should be advanced short of total structural transformation by which I mean a revolution in social property relations; it is a question of conceptual clarity.  Tactical compromises and coalitions are pointless unless located in the realm of the possible; utopian fantasies of unattainable social harmony lead to disillusion and perhaps despair followed by violence or apathy. Social conflict should be analyzed with a view to real difference of interest: ethnocultural or gender categories as the primary source of “identity” are not only essentialist; they mystify internal class conflicts in that group or gender or nationality and sink the dissenting individual (e.g., as modern artist or scientist).

Moreover, insofar as “identity politics” posit self-contained “communities” such categories deflect attention from interdependence with other groups and with nature.  But most crucially, the search for “identity” is an imperative formulated by reactionaries worried about “continuity” and “cohesion” in those modern societies that continually question authority; the modernists (deemed iconoclastic by their opponents) seek new forms of order that may “de-skill” kings and clerics.

How do competing “historicisms” alleviate or worsen the pressures of double binds? I contrast two of them: one is now dominant in the humanities, while the second one promises potential advance in our undercivilized war-ridden world.

A. Historicism as “blood-and-soil” pluralism or “ethnoculturalism” or “ethnopluralism”: the “identity politics” created by the pseudo-moderate men.  Defining itself against the New Unpredictability, i.e., the open-ended inductive methods of science, the new civil liberties and miscegenating “rootless cosmopolitanism” of the radical Enlightenment, ethnopluralism denies the existence of universal truths or ethical standards since there are only “group facts”; hence there can be no conflict between the independent thinker and the group.  These corporatist[1] thinkers (pluralists and cultural relativists) may attempt to restore a racially or ethnically homogeneous “community” which is innocently erotic, harmonious, pre-capitalist, myth-loving and patriarchal (i.e., ruled by the wisely integrative good father); free of the disintegrating Enlightenment (Hebraic, radical Protestant, technocratic, consumerist) intellect: everyone is protected, rooted and comfortable with her/his place and modest possessions, not tormented by the expectation of autonomy (which is caricatured as leading to anomie or the insatiable will-to-power or masochism).

B. Historicism as critical historical analysis. We should understand that the imagination has a social history that must be retrieved if we are to transcend the irrational politics of the past.  A critical history will not simply look at class, “race,” and gender in a static fashion to detect “positive” and “negative” images, or heroic myths, or gender/racial/ethnic archetypes, or instincts for “innate aggression” or “Thanatos.”  Rather, a critical history examines all the institutions that limit or expand opportunities and choices; people and their emotions are in motion, (partially) accepting or rejecting inherited narratives that diagnose difficulties and recommend solutions.  Even if some human characteristics are proven to be genetically transmitted, aggression for instance, it should be explained why some people seem out of control while others master their instincts in the interest of peaceful conflict-resolution: What are the ideological and environmental conditions that limit or expand choices?  Unlike some postmodernists or “new historicists,” I do not conclude that people are stamped or inscribed by discourses/ environments, even though individual and social conflicts are historically concrete and require site-specific contextual analysis.  Nor does this historicism automatically preclude comparisons and contrasts with institutions and conflicts in other cultures and earlier periods as some conservative cultural relativists would have it.

My final goal is the reclamation of the amelioration, critical thought and universalist ethics promoted by the Radical Enlightenment: Can there be a preformulated good myth, a “narrative of resistance” (Richard Slotkin), or is perpetual improvisation and the open-ended process of anti-mythic narrative (analysis, revision, and reconfiguration of past and present) the enlightened alternative to the Symbolist politics of the Progressives?  For example, their paternalistic “reform-or-ruin” prescription for preventive politics (Lasswell and Murray) does not remove, however gradually, what may be structural causes of conflict, hence is a form of psychological and political warfare, not the social and individual progress it wants to be.

I will end with some deathless words from Melville’s character, the abolitionist Father Mapple:

“Delight is to him- a far, far upward, and inward delight- who against the proud gods and commodores of this earth, ever stands forth his own inexorable self. Delight is to him whose strong arms yet support him, when the ship of this base treacherous world has gone down beneath him. Delight is to him, who gives no quarter in the truth, and kills, burns, and destroys all sin though he pluck it out from under the robes of Senators and Judges.”

In the context of this particular blog, the “sin” is yielding to another, however admired or adored, our critical capacities as citizens with both rights and duties.

[1] Corporatist does not refer to modern corporations and their power, but to the institutional style associated with  medieval Europe and the Christian-Platonic tradition.  It is the cultural style of the organic conservatives who believe that hierarchies are natural and beneficial; all diversity the gift of a perfect God.

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