Against Intellectual Biblioclasm II

I wrote my first manifesto “Against Intellectual Biblioclasm” over a year ago. I concluded it was time for an update when I read this earlier today:

Yet I am more persuaded by a former jihadi named Shahid Butt, who now spends his time deradicalising misguided souls in Birmingham. To him, another rioter from 1989, Rushdie is simply “a dickhead”. He says: “What kind of literary writer, academic, are you that the only way that you can get any fame is by being derogatory and by insulting billions of people. Is that the best you can do?”

Rushdie’s silly, childish book should be banned under today’s anti-hate legislation. It’s no better than racist graffiti on a bus stop. I wouldn’t have it in my house, out of respect to Muslim people and contempt for Rushdie, and because it sounds quite boring. I’d be quite inclined to burn it, in fact. It’s a free country, after all.

This may or may not be “a modest proposal” on the author’s part—Poe’s Law applies. Yet his logic, the eliminationist-totalitarian logic of #cancellation now rampant within the left-liberal literary world, is impeccable. As I wrote in my review of Albert Murray’s The Hero and the Blues last year:

[T]his [is the] time of the left-liberal literati’s retrenchment, its increasingly shrill insistence, enforced by regular social media mob actions against wreckers and traitors, on a Marxist-derived reductionist approach to human identity and a moralistic attitude toward the nature and purpose of art, the latter coupled with impatient defenses of inquisitorial censoriousness. They want to pull books from the shelves and pictures from the walls; who could possibly doubt that if, say, the Rushdie affair happened today, all of literate Brooklyn would high-mindedly excuse those calling for the “racist” novelist’s head?

When I was a teenager, I joined the political left because I understood it, in that era of the religious right’s now-almost-forgotten hegemony, to be the side that stood for freedom of thought and speech. I was warned by several older people that this was not the case, but with the certitude that can only come from youthful inexperience, I did not listen. 15 years ago, depressed and afraid, I wrote all day on Livejournal (remember that?) about how George W. Bush was going to put us in prison camps and had done 9/11 and would start a nuclear war, about how both climate change and peak oil (remember that?) would end the world within the decade, and about how only proletarian and Third-World revolution would save us.

It only took a year or two, and professional acquaintance with some fellow travelers of this creed, to show me how wrong I was about its reliability as a guide to both facts and ethics. Apocalypticism is always a racket; dystopia is an abuse of the speculative intellect, a genre fit for children, and perhaps not even for them. And if the world ends, you can’t do anything about it anyway. Chekhov said that artists should only participate in politics only enough to keep themselves safe from politics. We need to cultivate our gardens, after we secure our right to them in the first place. The autonomy of art is not incidental to secular freedom but its bedrock. It is logically, because politically, prior to almost every other right. The enslaved were not permitted to read; freedom of speech, thought, and art grounds and founds every other freedom. 

The totalitarian left as a metaphysical entity is, in contrast to secular freedom, an only very slight development of the theocratic imagination, with its anathemas, its iconoclasms, and its eschatologies. In the platonically sterile air of its cultural dominance, laughter itself, laughter per se, becomes a confession of unrighteous thought, hence the perennial necessity of purging jesters like Rushdie or, before him, Joyce. 

How did this happen? How did we, the heirs to Joyce and contemporaries of Rushdie,  become thrall to these latter-day Savonarolas, Matherses, and Zhdanovs? Ours was a literary century inaugurated by the martyrdom of Oscar Wilde, who would be #canceled today if only the present-day literati lifted their heads from whatever children’s books have not yet been pulped for insensitivity long enough to know of his pederasty, his anti-Semitism, or his Confederate sympathies, none of which justify the juridical destruction of his person nor corrupt the spirit of imaginative freedom that respires from his perfumed prose.

Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live. And unselfishness is letting other people’s lives alone, not interfering with them. Selfishness always aims at creating around it an absolute uniformity of type. Unselfishness recognizes infinite variety of type as a delightful thing, accepts it, acquiesces in it, enjoys it. It is not selfish to think for oneself. A man who does not think for himself does not think at all. It is grossly selfish to require of one’s neighbor that he should think in the same way, and hold the same opinions. Why should he? If he can think, he will probably think differently. If he cannot think, it is monstrous to require thought of any kind from him. (“The Soul of Man Under Socialism”)

And this inquisition has nothing whatsoever to do with “anti-racism,” which is just another in a long line of noble causes corrupted into an alibi for tyranny by opportunists who begin to feel insane if they go one second without controlling other people. Albert Murray would be the first to tell you. But also: Toni Morrison stood with Rushdie, Ralph Ellison mocked the Marxists, and Zora Neale Hurston knew the score 90 years ago:

Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more of less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife. (“How It Feels to Be Colored Me”)

As for “social justice,” it is practiced just as you would expect a political concept developed in the 19th-century Catholic Church to be practiced: with less respect than is presently desirable for freedom, individuality, and the imagination.

I was raised Catholic and educated in Catholic schools, so I will say what I want about the abuses within the institutions of that faith, if not about the faith itself, which is often salvific and beautiful (Wilde would agree). Perhaps many forms of feminism would make somewhat more emotional sense to me if I hadn’t heard three generations’ worth of stories, and witnessed an example or two with my own eyes, of adult women dressed all in black beating small children with rulers bound into fasces or stabbing them in the chest with ballpoint pens for their sins. My parents were married by a priest now known to be a predatory pedophile, and in my youth a different priest now known to be a predatory pedophile was frequently entertained at my family’s dinner table. So much for holiness, holy women, holy men, and holy causes. In Catholic school, long before I knew about any priest’s private predilections, long before I read Wilde (or Nietzsche), I learned that avowed morality is usually a cover for domination and brutality.

Anyone who speaks of morality while controlling or harming others does the devil’s work. It might even be true, sometimes I suspect it is, that anyone who speaks of morality ever, at all, instead of silently doing all the good that can be managed in this crooked world, is the devil’s assistant. In any case, “morality,” “justice,” and all the rest of “those big words that make us so unhappy,” make me want to vomit. These are abstractions susceptible of being twisted into this shape and that by totalitarians. Those who want to ban and burn the books of authors of color are “anti-racists” in the same way that many communist states were “democratic republics.”

By contrast, the élan vital of literature is specificity, concretion, and singularity. That is not because all writers are moral, or all works are; the very question of the morality of art is—not a childish one, because children blessedly don’t care, but precisely one motivated by all the insecurity of adults who don’t feel they have command of themselves unless they are commanding others. As one good Catholic, Simon Leys, once wrote,

It is not a scandal if novelists of genius prove to be wretched fellows; it is a comforting miracle that wretched fellows prove to be novelists of genius.

Now I write the foregoing because I know how many people agree with me. They are just unwilling to say so in public; in public, they melt into puddles if someone cries, “Think of the children!” or if some opportunist, with transparent phoniness, claims to be the single voice of a race, a gender, a class, or a sexuality, even though doing so is a form of dehumanizing essentialism in its own right because it traduces the complexity of all communities and individuals.

It has to stop. We all have to seize our courage in the face of the all-out assault on artistic freedom that is coming from within the very institutions (the press, academia, publishing) we have appointed custodians of art. There is no excuse. The time for freedom of speech and art is now and forever. Against the book banners and the book burners—against them while we’re allowed to be.

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If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters

The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and LettersThe Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters by Frances Stonor Saunders

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Someone once said that beneath or behind all political and cultural warfare lies a struggle between secret societies.
—Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo (1972)

This 1999 book by British journalist Saunders is the classic account of the CIA’s semi-secret mid-20th-century sponsorship of cultural organizations, literary and political journals, artistic movements, and related ventures (including films and political campaigns) throughout the world to combat the influence of communism.

Taking the form of a narrative history, The Cultural Cold War focuses on three men who were the relays between seemingly independent artists and intellectuals and the American (as well as British) intelligence services.

Saunders’s stars are Melvin Lasky, a Bronx-born and City-College-educated militant anti-communist who became a prominent editor in Germany after World War II; Nicolas Nabokov, cousin to the more famous novelist Vladimir, a White Russian émigré and flamboyant composer who would go on to be at the center of the artists and writers knowingly or unknowingly recruited to fight communism; and Michael Josselson, descended from an Estonian Jewish family exiled after the Russian Revolution, who became an American citizen and then an intelligence and psychological warfare expert  overseeing the Agency’s domination of arts and letters.

This trio’s travails are the emotional spine of the book, and Saunders treats them with sympathy, especially Josselson, whom she seems to regard as a tragic figure, a man of cultivation and passion caught in world-historical circumstances well beyond his control. At times, I felt I was reading a sequel to Gravity’s Rainbow, another vast and complex story about humanists compromised by the domineering services to which the masters of war inevitably wish to put humanism.

While The Cultural Cold War is a dispassionate book with a minimum of editorializing, Saunders seems to reserve most of her judgment not for the intelligence officers, but for the artists and intellectuals themselves. They either cynically or naively accepted CIA money laundered through philanthropic foundations (many of which were simply fronts, little more than mail drops for the transfer of funds) even as they nevertheless congratulated themselves for being on the side of a free society where the government did not interfere with cultural life.

The CIA was instituted in 1947, an outgrowth of the wartime OSS (Office of Strategic Services), and it became a tentacular and autonomous bureaucracy operating unaccountably worldwide. Its motivation in waging a cultural Cold War was to recruit a “non-communist left.” Understanding the appeal of dissidence to artists and thinkers, and understanding too the pre-war attractions of communism during the 1930s, the CIA grasped that keeping rebellious intellectuals in the fold of liberalism would be crucial to ensure the success of “the American century.”

To that end, they funded a European organization called the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the famous British liberal literary journal Encounter (edited by Stephen Spender and Irving Kristol), and art and music exhibitions meant to emphasize the progressive side of American culture to European audiences skeptical that America had a culture at all. Exemplary here are the CIA’s covert promotion of Abstract Expressionist painting as an individualist and apolitical antidote to socialist realism and of jazz and other African-American arts as a riposte to the Soviet Union’s charges of American hypocrisy in complaining about communism’s civil unfreedom.

Saunders emphasizes that the CIA really did represent the liberal side of the internal American debate over how to handle the Cold War, referring to “many romantic myths about the CIA as an extension of the American liberal literary tradition.” The men she writes about were generally horrified by the know-nothing populism of Joseph McCarthy, while a number of presidents, including Truman and Johnson (but excluding the suave would-be Pericles Kennedy), resented intellectuals, distrusted modernist art, and would have preferred a more populist cultural ethos of God and country.

The American intelligence service, she notes, was staffed by the country’s traditional Anglo-Protestant elite, an educated class who felt the responsibility of national stewardship: “Many of them hailed from a concentration in Washington, D.C., of a hundred or so wealthy families…who stood for the preservation of the Episcopalian and Presbyterian values that had guided their ancestors.” Yet their waging of the Cold War would result, ironically, in that elite’s and those values’ cultural dispossession.

Part of this book’s sly comedy comes in the intelligence elite’s sometimes uncomprehending interaction with the “new class,” primarily Jewish intellectuals, but in the background there is also the emergence of Catholic writers and black artists and postcolonial talents, all of whom the CIA recruited as a bludgeon against communism. If the literary-sociological headline of midcentury American writing is the rise of Jewish, Catholic, and African-American authors to unprecedented prominence, Saunders implies that this was in a way a project of the WASP elite, a move in the Great Game against Russian communism and for western values.

But for Saunders, this new class, particularly the New York Intellectuals, did not acquit itself well, especially those who would go on to fill the ranks of the neoconservatives. Irving Kristol seems more or less to be the book’s villain. He represents for Saunders a type of pseudo-thinker who possesses an essentially militarized mind, a man who cannot conceive of intellectual life outside of polarizing combat and enemies to slay. Saunders tends to portray Sidney Hook, Diana Trilling, and Leslie Fiedler in the same unflattering light.

Quoted throughout the book as moral authorities, by contrast, are more independent-minded figures devoted to a nuanced conception of the literary and political life: Arthur Miller, Saul Bellow, Gore Vidal, Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt, and New York Review of Books co-founder Jason Epstein.

Saunders tentatively concludes that when American intellectuals, even those who had gone along with the cultural Cold War, turned against Johnson over Vietnam, he ordered the plug to be pulled on the operation, judging that “‘liberals, intellectuals, Communists—they’re all the same.'” The CIA’s cultural activities were exposed in a California-based radical magazine called Ramparts, and later reported in the New York Times. But Saunders implies that the Agency could probably have squashed Ramparts‘s reporting or at least effectively replied to it. But they did not; they allowed their own exposure, perhaps out of a sense that the cultural Cold War had run its course. If this is true, it makes the radical magazine’s exposure of liberal intellectuals’ collaboration with the CIA itself an instrument of the Agency’s will, a familiar hall-of-mirrors effect from spy thrillers: is there anything the CIA doesn’t control?

This problem of mirroring is the thesis, ultimately, of Saunders’s book. She writes of the irony in combatting totalitarianism by exercising (or participating in) in the state’s total control over intellectual and artistic life. American and British writers and artists, in trying to fight the Soviet Union, became far too much its counterpart. This comes out, for instance, in passages where Saunders records how the Agency attempted to quash art that reflected too negatively on the U.S., recalling nothing so much as the strictures of socialist realism:

Echoing Sidney Hook’s complaints of 1949 that Southern writers reinforced negative perceptions of America, with their “novels of social protest and revolt” and “American degeneracy and inanity,” the American Committee now resolved to “steer clear of incestuous Southerners. Their work gives an exceedingly partial and psychologically colored account of our manners and morals.” […] Sales of books by Caldwell, Steinbeck, Faulkner, and Richard Wright…slumped in this period.

Near the conclusion of the book, Saunders suggests that collaboration with state power, even in an ostensibly good political cause, is an abdication of the intellectual’s responsibility to tell the truth:

[E]thics were subject to politics. They confused their role, pursuing their aims by acting on people’s states of mind, choosing to slant things one way rather than another in the hope of achieving a particular result. That should have been the job of politicians. The task of the intellectual should have been to expose the politician’s economy with the truth, his parsimonious distribution of fact, his defense of the status quo.

Furthermore, in a preface to the 2013 edition, Saunders offers an argument against any excessive political conviction, any use of propaganda:

My sympathies are with Voltaire, who argued that anyone who is certain ought to be certified. I believe that Milan Kundera’s “wisdom of uncertainty” is a touchstone for intellectual inquiry. The Cultural Cold War could be described as a polemic against conviction (which can be distinguished from faith or belief or values) and the strategies used to mobilize one conviction against another. In the highly politicized context of the cultural cold war, this refusal to take sides was designated, pejoratively, as relativism or neutralism. It was not a position or sensibility tolerated by either side—both the Soviet Union and the United States were committed to undermining the case for neutralism, and in the theater of operations which is the focus of this book, Western Europe, that campaign devolved from very similar tactics.

The Cultural Cold War, then, argues for a rather unfashionable thesis: the autonomy of art and intellect from politics. The authority of artists and intellectuals to scrutinize and criticize their societies is based on their disinterested distance from its governing institutions. This distance is a modern phenomenon and is ever in danger of being compromised. The idea that artists do not exist to serve the church, the state, or any other collective or constituency hardly existed before the 19th century, though there are hints of it in Greek literature’s famous moments of even-handedness (The Persians, for instance) or in Shakespeare’s constitutive ambiguities.

Materially, the distance of intellectuals from power can rarely be total, especially today when so many of us are gathered under the aegis of the university. (I myself am paid in part with taxpayer funds.) Nevertheless, we give up this ideal of artistic and intellectual independence, the true meaning of “cultural freedom” betrayed in practice by the Cold Warriors, at the risk of relinquishing whatever social power we still have.

Saunders’s old-fashioned idealism, like the blurbs on the back of the book from Edward Said and Lewis Lapham, wistfully calls to mind an  “ideological formation” (to use the comrades’ jargon) that scarcely exists in this country any longer, a non-communist left worth supporting—non-communist not because it represents Cold War managerial liberalism (the “snivelling, mealy-mouthed tyranny of bureaucrats, social workers, psychiatrists and union officials” Saunders quotes William S. Burroughs as denouncing) but because its exponents were civil and cultural libertarians.

And what of today? What intellectual and artistic organs are being moved as we speak by the hidden hand of the deep state? I suppose we all have our suspicions, and “none” would be an absurdly naive answer. But who knows for sure? I imagine we’ll learn more about what is really going on right now in about 30-50 years. In the meantime, to get an idea of how paranoid you should be, you should read The Cultural Cold War.

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Tom Wolfe, Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers

Radical Chic; &, Mau Mauing The Flak CatchersRadical Chic & Mau Mauing The Flak Catchers by Tom Wolfe

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s a tiny bit arrogant of people to go around worrying about those less fortunate.
—Whit Stillman, Metropolitan

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: it is a year or two into a conservative presidential administration—one that follows an epoch-making liberal one, and that was carried into office on a wave of resentful white populism. Social and cultural changes that once looked permanent now feel a bit insecure. An alliance between the cultural and economic elite with progressive causes, including some of those causes’ more radical exponents, starts to break. Satire overwhelms earnestness. The ideological and demographic constituencies of the broad political left itself begin to fall out: socialist vs. liberal, working class vs. middle class, African-American vs. Jewish. The ethical status of the state of Israel is a particular flashpoint. And the New York Times increasingly appears to side, at least in matters cultural, with the political right.

Is this America? Is this 2018? It is indeed America, but I am describing the Nixon years, and you can read all about it in the late Tom Wolfe’s 1970 classic of embedded and excitable reportage, “Radical Chic.” The titular phrase, by the way, is one—among others—that Wolfe introduced into the language; it signifies the temporary adoption of left-wing ideology by the rich as a matter of fashion. (The word woke now means roughly the same, at least in its ironic usage, where it is spoken in imagined quotation marks to suggest a privileged white liberal’s patronizing adoption of black slang.)

Upon the white-suited author’s recent death, I wanted to read something of his, preferably not a 900-page novel in the mode of a zany Zola, so I chose this diptych on hearing “Radical Chic” commended on social media as especially relevant to the politics of the present. I just didn’t realize how relevant it would prove, even though I am the one always saying history is likely more circle than line.

“Radical Chic” famously narrates a party and/or meeting and/or benefit (the nature of the gathering actually becomes a point of contention in its controversial aftermath) held in the home of celebrated conductor Leonard Bernstein in 1970 wherein he hosted a number of Black Panthers alongside his more customary guest list of VIPs (Otto Preminger, Barbara Walters, Harry Belafonte—to cite a few names still in circulation). The event itself goes awry when Bernstein and his cohort begin interrogating their new guests not so much on racial politics, but rather on the Panthers’ avowed revolutionary goal of overthrowing capitalism—obviously an unwelcome prospect to this gathering of the haute bourgeoisie. Further, there is the tense subtext of worsening relations between the black and Jewish communities, exacerbated by the Panthers’ Third Worldist politics and concomitant hostility to Israel. When a columnist somewhat mockingly reports on the party in the New York Times the next day, it becomes a watchword for the delusions of fashionable bien pensance at the end of the 1960s.

While Wolfe artfully restricts his narrative timeline to the present of Bernstein’s party and its immediate aftermath, his own authorial voice ranges through the history of status wars between old and new money in New York City. Because America has no landed aristocracy, Wolfe explains, there are always new rich emerging from new bases of wealth (railroads, oil, steel, etc.) who need to set themselves apart with new status symbols. Often this takes the form of nostalgie de la boue, or “romanticizing of primitive souls”—essentially, slumming. Making matters more complicated, the new rich of the midcentury, who made their millions in media and culture, come from the ranks of the formerly impoverished immigrant groups: they are Catholics and Jews. These groups, especially the latter, have an understandable historical connection to the political left without compare among previous Protestant cohorts of the new rich. For this reason, they are especially divided between their self-interest and their desire for social justice, and are accordingly susceptible to radical chic, a fundamentally dishonest way of reconciling these incompatible commitments, and one moreover accompanied by an exploitative aestheticization or fetishization, even a consumption, necessarily de haut en bas, of the objects of their pity:

These are no civil-rights Negroes wearing gray suits three sizes too big—

—no more interminable Urban League banquets in hotel ballrooms where they try to alternate the blacks and whites around the tables as if they were stringing Arapaho beads—

—these are real men!

Shootouts, revolutions, pictures in Life magazine of policemen grabbing Black Panthers like they were Viet Cong—somehow it all runs together in the head with the whole thing of how beautiful they are. Sharp as a blade. The Panther women—there are three or four of them on hand, wives of the Panther 21 defendants, and they are so lean, so lithe, as they say, with tight pants and Yoruba-style headdresses, almost like turbans, as if they’d stepped out of the pages of Vogue, although no doubt Vogue got it from them. All at once every woman in the room knows exactly what Amanda Burden meant when she said she was now anti-fashion because “the sophistication of the baby blacks made me rethink my attitudes.”

Radical chic is the anti-racism that is really just racism.

Now Wolfe could not explicate this history and its results so knowledgeably without some sympathy for the subjects of his investigation. His attitude is not simply one of contempt; there is too much understanding in it for that. But there is satire, especially in the piece’s opening explanation of how Bernstein and friends clamored to hire white (largely Hispanic) rather than black servants in preparation for their encounter with the Black Panthers.

Wolfe largely spares the Black Panthers themselves his satirical scrutiny. I suspect he sees them as honest political players, pursuing their interests in the open sans the complex codes of the comme il faut among the jet set, codes that often operate precisely to conceal conflicts of interest. In the slighter second piece in this volume, “Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers,” he is more unsparing, and here his conservative politics come to the fore as he presents an elaborate game between community organizers and poverty programs in San Francisco. The staid bureaucrats, he explains, require the organizers to intimidate and harass them to justify getting anything done, though what they bring to the communities they ostensibly serve is often make-work amounting to little. Wolfe allows that this characteristic exchange of administrative liberalism helps to bring self-reliance to otherwise desperate constituencies, but here his derision is withering, especially in his depiction of a climactic parade through the gilded and marble City Hall of children, grotesquely eating junk food and headed by an organizer in a dashiki.

But if “Radical Chic” helped me to understand aspects of elite media in the Age of Trump, “Mau-Mauing” helped me to understand why the last president—himself a former community organizer—often implored his audiences to push his ostensibly moderate government toward more radical goals; according to Wolfe, this is a longstanding technique for change in urban politics. While “Radical Chic” exhibits a certain tact in writing about the Black Panthers that prevents the piece’s satire from lapsing into racist invective, “Mau-Mauing”—with its eponymous mocking allusion to anti-colonial revolt—does no such thing: its author is the anthropologist as insult artist, and the field report is acidly cartoonish, even if written with contemptuous relish.

The progression in this book, then, is the one narrated by this book: a rightward shift, a growing impatience with the attempt to display sympathies whose honest extension would mean your own undoing. It is true that this can be a cold and unfeeling doctrine, a Nietzschean call to the right of might, but on the other hand at least it does not have that particular reek of hypocrisy. And anyway, Wolfe seems to suggest in his relatively respectful allowance of voice and distance to the Black Panthers, better an open conflict of interests than the cheat that is the power-play of pity. Wolfe’s own justly celebrated writing style, its dandiacal energy unimpeded by guilt or condescension, is the literary correlate of such an aristocratic politics.

The effect of Wolfe’s satire against the high-low alliance made by radical chic is to shield the middle classes, the “silent majority,” from the scorn of the cultural elite and the anger of the insurgent oppressed; yet Wolfe is certainly not of this middle realm himself. His overture to them—like so many we see today—is possibly only another unworkable and hypocritical partnership across the line dividing the cultural haves from the have-nots. As Flaubert claimed he was Emma Bovary even as he anatomized her delusions, so Wolfe might have to acknowledge a kinship with Leonard Bernstein. But I doubt the maestro is the doppelgänger Wolfe would have chosen out of his own text. Perhaps as he gazed across Bernstein’s parlor, over the heads of the cringing liberals, he saw—in a moment of nostalgie all his own—the Field Marshal of the Black Panther Party as his own self-image in photo negative: the stylish warrior.

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If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Richard Rorty, Achieving Our Country

Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century AmericaAchieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America by Richard M. Rorty

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Richard Rorty is a Pragmatist philosopher: he believes that ideas and actions should be judged on their effects rather than their metaphysical or ontological status. Don’t ask whether it’s true, whatever “it” may be, ask only if it works.

His late-twentieth-century advice to the American Left in this 1998 book, therefore, is to stop the sectarianism, ditch the Marxist scholasticism, and come together to effect the aims of an economically egalitarian and culturally liberal society. Essentialist identity politics, an excessive concern with reform vs. revolution, an overly pessimistic idea of America, and a focus on ideology-critique in arts criticism: all of these, according to Rorty, are a drag on the movement toward social justice. A movement that is all the more urgent, he explains, since globalization will exacerbate inequality and thereby make anti-democratic populist fervor inevitable. Because of this quite correct prediction, Rorty’s twenty-year-old book received renewed notoriety after Brexit/Trump.

This book’s most basic practical political contention is that the economic effects of globalization must be ameliorated within the nation-state to avoid fascist backlash. I agree with this. Which would have satisfied Rorty: he would say that this is all we really need to agree on, and that we can cheerfully agree to disagree on the rest.

And I do disagree with much of the rest. Pragmatism has always struck me as a basically dishonorable position, though I will get back to you when and if I read more William James. In general, though, how can philosophers, of all people, desist from the quest for the truth? Pragmatism lacks even the sublimity of Existentialism, which, while no less anti-foundational and anti-essentialist, at least posits the creation of authentic truths rather than just effects. As an anti-foundationalist, Rorty cannot explain why we should desire an egalitarian society. Nietzsche, I believe, pointed out that democratic values silently depend on the monotheistic presumption that we are all made in the image of and are equal in the eye of the Lord. What if this is true? It may not be, but the question, which seems to me so obvious, does not appear even to arise for Rorty.

As for Rorty’s attitude toward literature, I find it embarrassing. If you want national uplift, go to a baseball game. And if Whitman were only what Rorty makes of him, he would just be Carl Sandburg. I know that in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Rorty cordons off, for the safety of all involved, the purely aesthetic (i.e., irony) from the movement toward social justice (i.e., solidarity), but in this book he calls for a literature of national purpose. He castigates Pynchon and cyberpunk and Silko for criticizing America without leaving open the potential for change once left by reformist novelists like Stowe or Sinclair. He demands that we put Emerson above Poe because the former lifts our mood with his vision of infinite possibility and the latter drags us down into Gothic questions about otherness and irrationality. What would he do with Melville or Faulkner, with Emily Dickinson? Or even with Emerson’s and Whitman’s own bad moods, their own ventures in Gothic decadence (“Lisp’d to me the low and delicious word death, / And again death, death, death, death”)?

Finally, much as I have my own misgivings about Marxism and identity politics (but I repeat myself: when Marx said that one social class held the key to social transformation, he invented identity politics), Rorty seems almost comically averse to the idea of intractable objective differences of interest, even within the Left. Relatedly—in a “no coincidence, comrade” kind of way—Rorty’s autobiographical asides, his recollections of a childhood spent among anti-Stalinist upper-middle-class socialists, are a fascinating glimpse of an untold truth that people of my own disreputable (perhaps even “deplorable”) class/regional/family background find out when we go away to college but cannot really find a way to discuss without sounding like Hannity even though it’s true: much of the American Left is, by and large, a hereditary elite.

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John Marsh, In Walt We Trust: How a Queer Socialist Poet Can Save America from Itself

In Walt We Trust: How a Queer Socialist Poet Can Save America from ItselfIn Walt We Trust: How a Queer Socialist Poet Can Save America from Itself by John Marsh

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In Walt We Trust is blessedly less reductive than its overeager title and subtitle make it sound. John Marsh is a professor at Penn State specializing in American poetry and the literature and theory of labor and working-class movements; his view of Whitman, therefore, focuses on the poet’s politics, with a particular emphasis on how his work can be construed as a critical response to capitalist culture. Whitman was the first canonical American poet to be born to the working class, Marsh emphasizes. His politics were progressive for their time—he belonged to the anti-slavery left wing of the Democratic Party—and his poetry, in its aspiration toward universal sympathy, more radical than that. To explore Whitman’s views and their contemporary relevance, Marsh divides his book into four main chapters. In each, he visits a location that is either directly related to Whitman’s life or that reflects on the poet’s themes, and each treats a central ill in American culture that Whitman’s poetry might cure: death, debt, sex, and political polarization.

The first chapter concerns Whitman’s spiritual or ontological optimism—his belief that, because all things are made of the same circulating atoms, there can be no death but only constant renewal. As an explication of Whitman’s philosophy and its grounding in nineteenth-century science, the chapter is useful, but Marsh’s postmodern discomfort with spirituality of any kind makes it an odd opener. The much stronger second chapter explicates Whitman’s nuanced and sensible, though still sadly uncommon, economic views, which can be summed up as follows: money was made to serve humanity; humanity was not made to serve money. Whitman allows the need in a decent society for enough wealth to free citizens from economic anxiety so they can pursue higher goals, even as he insists that to seek wealth and prosperity as such is to mistake a means (money) for an end (a good life, however defined). The third chapter is likewise compelling; framed with rueful comedy by Marsh’s uncomfortable visit to a central PA strip club, it argues persuasively that Whitman’s celebratory and bodily poetics chart a middle path between the nineteenth century’s debilitating sexual shame and the twenty-first century’s enervating sexual shamelessness. Finally, the fourth chapter movingly narrates Whitman’s service as wound-dresser during the Civil War and explains the potential for Whitmanian comradely love and solidarity to reunify our atomized and polarized society.*

Still, Marsh is perhaps a better scholarly than popular writer, despite his memoir-structure’s appeal to Whitmanian personal poetics: for me, the standout parts of this book were its two interludes, which, sans memoir or polemic, address the biographical questions of whether Whitman was a socialist and whether he was a gay man. Marsh’s command of social and intellectual history allows him to answer both questions very subtly. He concludes that Whitman was a socialist in values but not in systematic political theory, and that, while neither his behavior nor his writings depart very far from conventional Victorian sexual ideology, his sometimes seemingly overmastering love of men bespeaks, if not “homosexuality” (i.e., an identity), then “queerness” (i.e., a variability of desire and identity). On the last point, Marsh even somewhat boldly argues that Whitman’s call for “adhesiveness” or “manly love” among citizens is more radical the less sexual it is, because it allows us to imagine an affective union with our fellow citizens that might incite more care and inspire more equality than any external state-socialist measures could. That Whitman could write of such love without hostility or suspicion—Marsh points out that the main aspect of his work thought obscene by his contemporaries were those portraying sex between men and women—makes me wonder if the nineteenth century did not have its own version of queerness, enabled paradoxically by its suppression of genital sexuality as a topic for public discourse: with intercourse off the table, you could speak or write much more freely of every other form of love and desire.

In Walt We Trust is published by a Marxist press and Marsh writes overtly as a leftist, but he seems to hope to arrive at a non-doctrinaire affective politics, bypassing argument through poetry’s power to inspire and envision a better life. Quoting Tony Judt, Christopher Lasch, Chris Hedges, and Andrea Dworkin, Marsh appears to be a kind of left-conservative, suspicious of liberal individualism in any form, whether economic (as favored by the right) or cultural and sexual (as favored by the left); a belief that we need to channel our energies into community over individuality and to focus on needs over desires animates his often chastened prose. No exuberant Transcendentalist attempt to unite these polarities seems possible in the present, at least not when starting from such a left politics. What would Whitman think of that? Not being the Whitman scholar that Marsh is, I am not entirely sure; but the gentle sadness of the Civil War poems, their abandonment of exhortation, their eloquent witness, hints at the proper task of poetry in a time of crisis. From “The Wound Dresser”:

An old man bending I come among new faces,
Years looking backward resuming in answer to children,
Come tell us old man, as from young men and maidens that love me,
(Arous’d and angry, I’d thought to beat the alarum, and urge relentless war,
But soon my fingers fail’d me, my face droop’d and I resign’d myself,
To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead;)
Years hence of these scenes, of these furious passions, these chances,
Of unsurpass’d heroes (was one side so brave? the other was equally brave;)
Now be witness again, paint the mightiest armies of earth,
Of those armies so rapid so wondrous what saw you to tell us?
What stays with you latest and deepest? of curious panics,
Of hard-fought engagements or sieges tremendous what deepest remains?

Marsh’s attention to that final question—along with his judicious scholarship—makes In Walt We Trust worth reading.

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* Speaking of Whitman’s selfless ministrations to the war-wounded: I spend a fair amount of time in these reviews defending authors who depart, in the life or the work, from conventional or even unconventional morality, but I share Marsh’s relief in contemplating Whitman—a great writer who was also, by all accounts, a good person. There is no need for these to go together, and I even think some personal or political immorality can be, like it or not, a passport to otherwise inaccessible literary territory; but it is heartening to know that you can write your country’s greatest poetry even as you behave with exemplary kindness and decency.

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