The Clare Spark Blog

February 10, 2014

“Good Fences Make Good Neighbors,” NOT

Carmen Miranda

Carmen Miranda

One of the Humanities-Net discussion groups, the History of Diplomacy (H-Diplo) reviewed a recent book by Mary E. Stuckey.  The Good Neighbor: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Rhetoric of American Power.  Rhetoric and Public Affairs Series. East Lansing Michigan State University Press, 2013.  376 pp.  $59.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-61186-099-3.

Here are some paragraphs from the review; they avoid the actual commercial trade components of Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor policy” –a goal declared as early as 1933 (see, in favor of its “rhetoric,” which is applied, willy-nilly to today’s updated version of Wilsonian internationalism. This misplaced emphasis on language reflects the fashionable postmodernist and culturalist turn in the humanities, which sees words as constitutive of reality. Hence the word below, “performative”:  saying that words create the real world. It follows that “hate speech” must be banned, as opposed to other non-linguistic strategies for improving economic opportunity.

I am asking you read this material, because it suggests to me that “American exceptionalism” is obliterated in favor of the foreign policy embraced by the Obama administration, that often appears to abandon the notion that the 18th century Enlightenment was the vanguard of humanity. Is it true that blatantly authoritarian societies share alleged “universal values”?

[Excerpt from H-Diplo review by Monica A. Bank:] “Stuckey identifies the elements of the good neighbor in five distinct characteristics: first, believing in the notion that right thinking people embraced a set of universally shared values; second, shaping the nation as a political community united by rhetoric that emphasized shared hardship, sacrifice, and interdependence; third, employing various types of political rhetoric, such as educative, invective, and performative speech; fourth, defining friends and enemies according to a specific set of values that coincided with the concept of “good neighbor” and “bad neighbor”; and fifth, emphasizing equality and mass participation under a strong executive as vital components of a strong neighborhood. The five subsequent body chapters follow these characteristics and delve more deeply into how these qualities constituted the Roosevelt administration’s concept of the national and global neighborhood.

“Stuckey sets up the book by explicating the way that Roosevelt understood the nation’s shared values, and how he framed the national neighborhood as a foundation for the global neighborhood. For Roosevelt, the nation was held together by a set of Judeo-Christian values, such as privileging spiritualism over materialism and committing to social justice. Social justice, for Roosevelt, was defined broadly as access to a decent home, the ability to work, and a safeguard against misfortune. Stuckey points out that Roosevelt tied Judeo-Christian values to the benefits that liberal capitalism could provide but that he also aimed to protect the vulnerable from the dangers and inconsistencies inherent within the liberal capitalist system. Such a framework allowed him to make compelling arguments about the nature of the economic crisis brought about by the Great Depression and, significantly, allowed him to offer a specific prescription for recovery that blamed his political enemies while simultaneously maintaining the greatness of American traditions. Stuckey’s analysis of shared Judeo-Christian values is also vital for understanding how Roosevelt’s move to significantly strengthen the role of the executive fit within the metaphor of the good neighbor. She points out that many Americans viewed the president with an almost religious fervor and that Roosevelt subtly employed rhetoric that encouraged comparison of him with celestial beings that became increasingly common and accepted during his administration. To counter concerns over his expanding executive authority, Roosevelt employed a religious discourse that portrayed his presidential role as one of service rather than of ruler. He also portrayed the expansion of executive power as a helpful and effective way to enact the will of God for the good of the American people.

Furthermore, his rhetoric conflated notions of religion, nation, and democracy as vital and interrelated points of a strong civilization.

This association allowed him to privilege national identity over the local and to position himself as the natural and benevolent leader driven by service to the spiritual needs of the community.” [End, review excerpt]

What are these “universally shared values”? Diversity, ethnicity, multiculturalism, tolerance? How could America both be in the vanguard of nations and respectful of less democratic, even tribal, nations? One or the other must yield, and it should be obvious that in today’s postmodern academy, “America” is a conception to be despised, unless it conforms to the current notions of “progress.”

For a related blog, see

The "muse" of Good Neighbor policy

The “muse” of Good Neighbor policy

March 21, 2012

Big Cities and the Mob

Hip cultural historians are still studying the anomie (rootlessness) they impute to big cities. While watching a recent PBS documentary on the achievements of Oscar Hammerstein II, it occurred to me that his oeuvre as a whole pointed back to a period of imagined rural or small-town neighborliness, to a time before his mother died when the lyricist was only fifteen (Fordin bio). That “neighborliness” (a soothing social bond represented in the mother-child dyad) was then translated to his idealized anti-racist international community, as then proposed by the United World Federalists (also a pet project of Harvard’s social psychologist Henry A. Murray) or in the premises of the United Nations. Although Hammerstein was a noted liberal anticommunist, his attempt to unite groups and nations with clashing political and economic interests, reminded me of Hitler’s populist elevation of the Volk, and also the Soviet attempt to merge peasants and workers, notwithstanding that peasants and workers had different material interests, as explained in this blog.

Although I had not thought of nostalgia for the pre-urban America as an underlying theme in the social thought of the early progressives, I suggest that fear of Cain’s cities, with their imputed urban neurasthenia and exacerbated individualist striving, not to speak of class warfare, animated the emotions of the intellectuals described below. The Scary City is a theme now being taken up by cultural historians, mostly writing from the left, who may have more in common with these agrarian critics of modernity than they realize. (If you have time for only one blog, choose the scary city.)

It is important to remember that “mass culture” was considered to be a mobbish urban phenomenon that explained Hitler’s support and rise to power (the Frankfurt School story, see, but it was also the explanation for all manner of mental illnesses, particularly narcissism (vainglory), deranged relations between the genders, and constant back-stabbing. For an example, see the NBC series Smash, which although it appears to sympathetically portray the New York theater world from a feminist, pro-gay perspective, Smash also calls into question the values it apparently celebrates, for instance contrasting the loneliness of stardom with the mutual solidarity offered by chorus members to the Katherine McPhee character. (In the last installment, nothing “works” in NYC, including the plumbing and heating. I have watched all seven episodes again, and wonder if the contrast drawn between country and city life will now evolve into the corruption of the innocent Karen, who will, like Marilyn, be ruined by the mercenary, anti-art values of show business.) (For more on Smash, see

We are so wrong about the imputed innocence and wholesomeness of the  [judenrein] small town life hitherto enjoyed by “Karen Cartwright” who starts Smash with a truncated performance of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (JFK used “innocence” and “wholesome” to describe Marilyn Monroe’s lascivious Happy Birthday song). Alongside of tight families and neighborliness, there were also troubled social relationships and authoritarian conduct pushing toward mindless conformity, as such writers as Sherwood Anderson were quick to identify and condemn. We do better to read Anderson (Winesburg, Ohio), along with such authors as Mark Twain and Cormac McCarthy for a better reading of force and fraud in American 19th century frontier life and beyond. (See

It is time to rehabilitate the “rootless cosmopolitans” who have been unfairly demonized by multiculturalists: Stalinists and Nazis alike. As the black novelist and ex-communist Richard Wright once implied: “any place I hang my hat is home.” Thornton  Wilder’s Stage Manager, in Wright’s scenario, is nowhere to be found. (For one rendition of the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer song alluded to, see

Thornton Wilder as Stage Manager in Our Town

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