Sunday, December 26, 2010


Relaxing in the mist of the holiday, I picked up the latest issue of one of my favorite journals, Academic Questions, the journal of the National Association of Scholars, which was formed about twenty years ago to fight emerging trends in the Humanities. I joined in the early 1990s and have looked forward to the arrival of the quarterly ever since. I am not altogether happy with the direction the organization has taken. It originally included scholars of all political persuasions, including one of our most distinguished Marxist historians, Eugene Genovese, but its tone and, I would imagine, its membership have become more and more conservative over the years, and the current issue, on popular culture, includes a number of articles by associates of right wing think tanks. Yet there are still leftish members like myself, and the journal remains valuable. This quarter's lead article by Lawrence M. Mead, "The Other Danger. . .. Scholasticism in Academic Research," develops a thought I have often had myself, that today's humanities departments increasingly resemble medieval universities and monasteries, endlessly rehashing theoretical controversies of no interest to anyone outside the academy, and specializing far too narrowly to develop any insights of general use. That I must admit had some personal resonance as the year drew to a close. My idea of a historian involves the broadest possible knowledge of at least several centuries of the past, which in turn allows one to put any given era in a broader context and draw some meaningful conclusions about its particular characteristics that intelligent lay people will find intersting. No one knows better than myself that that is not a marketable skill in today's American universities.

But I was even more struck by "A Counter-curriculum for the pop culture classroom" by Thomas Bertonneau, a professor of English currently visiting at the State University of New York at Oswego. The article is not an easy read, and Bertonneau is considerably more conservative than I am in certain respects, but it nonetheless touched on the critical question to which I alluded in my last post, namely, the whole question of self-restraint or regulation of various spheres of human life. (Until the end of the calendar year--in other words, for another five days--the whole journal, apparently, is available on line here.

As Bertonneau explains it, he frequently teaches the popular culture of the past as an antidote to the popular culture of the present. He is quite acute and rather scathing about the latter, which, he emphasizes, is above all a for-profit venture. Today's popular music and film appeal to the rawest senses. They are not participatory--it is almost impossible to sing much of today's popular music on one's own. They are "segmented" demographically, that is, designed to appeal to relatively narrow slices of the population, thus making it impossible for them to create real national discourse. And they are not designed to last. To make these points, Bertonneau explains, he balances them with discussions of two critical episodes from Genesis: Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden and Cain's murder of Abel. And it occurred to me that those two foundational tales have a great deal with the paradox with which I have been struggling, even though I interpret the first of them very differently from him.

Bertonneau ascribes Eve's (and then Adam's) decision to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree to "resentment," a term which he does not develop sufficiently in the article, but which seems to imply resentment of authority in general. As veteran readers know, my own reading of the tale combines the psychoanalyst Alice Miller with Strauss and Howe. Bertonneau does not mention exactly what the tree is, namely, the tree of good and evil, the judgment of which god, like so many parents, wants to reserve for himself. The lord of the Old Testament is, generationally speaking, a Hero, who has created this beautiful new world (in the same way that the GI generation created the Disneyland world that Frank Rich extolled this morning) and given it to his children on the sole condition that they adopt his view of good and evil. But this is exactly what Adam and Eve refuse to do--they have reached the age when they expect their own values to count, an inevitable stage, especially for Prophet generations born after a crisis. Alice Miller has added that the Lord virtually guaranteed that they would eat the fruit of the tree by forbidding it, since children are always most curious about the things that their parents fear the most. Bertonneau seems to prefer the sexual misreading of the episode that has been so popular over the ages, because he notes that having disobeyed one rule, they have to adopt another, the rule against nakedness. I see this as more of a coincidence: Adam and Eve have become aware of the sexual power of their bodies at the same moment that they have also decided to start making their own judgments. And I have always felt the myth would be truer to life ifthey themselves had decided to leave the Garden, their "parent's" miraculous achievement which to them has become commonplace if only because it is all that they have ever known.

In any event, however, the myth of the Garden has been used over several millennia to try to restrict sexual behavior, and that enterprise was probably most successful in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which, coincidentally or not, also represented the greatest age of rationalism that the world has ever known. Because sex is so powerful it is also frightening, and taboos have surrounded it at least since the time of the Old Testament, including taboos against incest, adultery, sex before marriage, and homosexuality. Male fear of feminine sexual power, I would certainly agree, has led to much more extensive taboos as well, including those confining women to the home and, even in the 21st century, compelling them to cover their bodies and their faces. About half a century ago those taboos began to come apart in western society, with tremendous consequences. Premarital sex has become normal, divorce now ends roughly half of all marriages, women function equally in the workplace, pornography is readily available, and just week homosexuals were formally accepted into the American military, virtually completing their march towards recognition as full citizens. The taboo against adultery has not fallen, however, and indeed in some respects it has become stronger, at least in the United States, where it is no longer tolerated among political leaders, a development I have always found to be lamentable. But even though the Republican Party's coalition has included opponents of all these trends, there is no real evidence that any of them are going to be reversed, and despite the weakening of family life they have helped to produce by de-coupling sex from marriage, I must still regard them, on the whole, as a good thing.

Coincidentally enough, last week I discussed One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which remains for me the best single movie about the Awakening of the 1960s and 1970s, with my elective class at the War College. Why, I asked, was McMurphy in prison and then in the mental hospital? "Fighting and fucking," one student replied, echoing exactly what McMurphy himself told the head of the hospital. Those were two of the instincts, we all agreed, that had to be restrained at least to some extent in order for civilization to function. Another student brought up the instinct of greed, against which the taboos, it seems to me, have historically been weaker. And violence and greed, it seems to me, are the key issues in Bertonneau's second example from Genesis, the story of Cain and Abel. Cain kills Abel out of jealousy--jealousy that God, who is still playing the paternal role even to the second generation, preferred Abel's offerings to his own. Abel was greedy--greedy for recognition--and God told him to accept his disappointment and not to give in to the temptation of sin. But give in Cain did, and murdered Abel.

For the last 35 years no passion has so inflamed American politics as the jealousy of the wealthy towards the demands of the government, which has now given lower tax rates the status of holy writ. And today's Wall Street robber barons have not had to resort to violence, at least within the United States, to satisfy their greed--not, at least, the kind of violence that would land them in jail. Yet they have shown nearly as little concern for their fellow citizens as Abel, calculatedly destroying the economy which our parents had built up and laying waste to whole regions of the United States with successive recessions, each one leaving fewer jobs behind, after "recovery," than the last. It was the genius of the Missionary generation, led by FDR, to realize that modern society demanded restraints upon greed to establish a minimum of economic justice. My generation has abandoned those restraints at least as dramatically as it has those upon sexual behavior. The four Boomer justices who (along with Silent Anthony Kennedy) struck down a century's worth of campaign finance law have accelerated that process even further. Historically taxes have grown higher and the government larger during the great crises of American life--but George W. Bush managed to reverse even that trend while unleashing two new wars, and left the federal government unable to respond effectively to the latest economic crisis.

There is another tragic element of this double transformation of American life. I cannot shake the believe that it was because our parents and grandparents had done such a fine job of dealing with political and economic questions that our generation felt free to devote itself to the pursuit of sexual freedom, gender equity, and the rest. While I would not go so far as to describe those parts of life as luxuries, their enjoyment does depend upon the maintenance of a just legal order, the provision of essential circumstances, and a minimum of economic opportunity. Those were exactly the things that our parents had provided and therefore exactly the things that Boomers took for granted and assumed would always take care of themselves. The joy in the rediscovery of the emotions in the late 1960s and 1970s was all the greater because grown-ups still ruled politics and the economy (and ruled them courageously and effectively enough actually to remove a President from office for violating the law.) Our children and grandchildren, alas, may learn the hard way about the nature of societies that lack those essential protections.

True progress would consist of combining greater emotional and sexual freedom with civic spirit and a measure of economic justice. This is not impossible--a good deal of Europe enjoys that combination right now. Such a combination could also restore the faith in western civilization that has been crumbling in much of the world. It is a worthy project indeed--but one which, I am sorry to say, is unlikely to be carried out here in the United States by the generations alive today. The unborn will have great work to do.


Gerald Meaders said...


Great roving commentary.

Re Adam and Eve, I came to see it as a primitive Jewish childrens' story.

Certain taboos of course, one would want to keep.... Rulers in early modern Europe seemed to be moral laws to themselves, but only up to a certain point; (eg Henry VIII. Elizabeth I certainly faced more 'restraints' than Henry, for example.)

Royal intermarriages among blood relatives was ok to a point; I don't know of examples of incest as such.

Re One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest,see also Samuel Beckett's novel, Murphy. For most people, re Beckett, 'a little dab 'l do ya', but I still recommend such things as Watt for the intrepid.

Thanks for the references.
All the best

Prior Friar said...

Regarding the comment that restricting sexual behavior was most successful during the 19th and early 20th centuries, you are alluding to Victorianism. I would agree that breaking the taboos of that era have produced tremendous consequences. However, there is a larger context than just the changes in sexual behavior.

In particular, I think this discussion explains much about the disarray of today's public education system. My father was a science teacher whose career spanned from 1928 to 1971. Before he died in 1988, he made some observations about dramatic changes in the way PARENTS of students related to teachers.

Prior to the 1950's, it was commonplace for misbehaving kids to be MORE afraid of the punishment they would receive at home from their parents than from the teachers. Adults taught their children to obey the teacher as if they were actually the parent. In psychology terms I think it was called "in loco parentis". All that changed beginning in the 1950's. My father was the school's Attendance Officer, and when he informed a parent about their child's truancy, it became commonplace for parents to side with the child and deny that their offspring could do anything wrong.

My father was not a strict disciplinarian. He began each school year explaining to his students only one rule: he would not tolerate disruptive behavior in class which interfered with the concentration of students who wanted to learn. No long lists of do's and don'ts, just common courtesy, and swift application of the punishment (detentions) for breaking that one rule.

I vividly remember going with my father to a PTA function at his school when I was in first grade, about 1957. A rough looking guy (think of Vic Morrow in the movie "Blackboard Jungle") walks up, reaches his hand under my father's necktie and flips it up into his face. I was horrified, but my father calmly tucked it back in and goes on talking in a friendly way. As "Fonzie" walked away, I heard him tell his sidekick "I like Mr. D. He's tough, but he's fair".

The 1960's brought a great deal of stress to my Dad's job, and in 1971 he suffered a heart attack and retired. Looking back, he came up with this theory: The great psychologist William James had warned Victorian parents to not create TOO MANY rules and restrictions on a child's behavior, because that would stifle their creativity. Over the years, this good idea was taken to its ultimate, illogical extreme by fans of Dr. Spock to "Don't create ANY inhibitions in the little darlings!".

It has also produced educators espousing counter-productive ideas like not giving grades for fear of hurting anyone's self-esteem. Let's not use flash cards to teach multiplication tables, or diagram sentences either because they're stressful. That's silly. Self-esteem and confidence are feelings produced by accomplishing something through effort. Removing competition does not help a child, it makes them less able to deal with the real world after they leave high school!

Relaxing the repressive mores of Victorianism has resulted in positive changes, yes, but when the pendulum swings too far in the other direction, it is harmful.

partisan said...

You speak of four boomer justices along with Kennedy striking down campaign law laws in Citizen United. But of course Antonin Scalia is not a boomer. This points out a general weakness with the generational emphasis in your analysis. Is "generation" really the salient difference in conservative Supreme Court justices? There is the obvious fact that all future Republican Supreme Court judges are going to be born after 1945. That pre Bush II Republican nominees can be divided into Rehnquist, Scalia and Thomas on the one side and Blackmun, Stevens, O'Connor, Kennedy and Souter on ther other might lead one to assume that GOP presidents before the Boomer Bush II were more judicious and less ideological. I would suggest this is an optical illusion. Of the five judges, only O'Connor faced a Republican Senate. Blackmun and Kennedy were after all the third choice for the job. When Stevens was chosen, the leading architect of the anti-Warren court was after all in prison. Souter was the result of Sununu's mistake. He chose Souter because nobody knew anything about him, and in turned out he didn't know very well either.

Is the diffeence between the Mondale/Dukakis Democratic party and the Clinton presidency really one of age, when it can be more accurately described as one of ideology or region? After all, Goldwater and Johnson, Reagan and Humphrey were virtually the same age. Cheney and Rumsfeld were the most important people behind Bush II. William Buckley and Norman Podhoretz were the most important molders of conservative thought over the past four decades. And the most influential voice behind much of American intellectual liberalism is the non boomer Martin Peretz.

partisan said...

I think I should add some comments about the decline of culture. (1) Is it really true that entertainment is more segmented than ever before? There is the obvious fact that it's harder for television programs to get an audience now that there are a hundred channels instead of only three. But Lizabeth Cohen's book on New Deal Chicago shows how misleading it is to speak of a homogenous mass culture in the twenties. One might say that "country" and "inner city" have moved beyond those limits in the last twenty years than before. (2) Is it really true that today's songs aren't meant to be sung? One would think that with karoake today's songs are far more likely to be sung by admirers. Yes, it's true that rock music is inescapably inferior to Bach and Beethoven. But that's always been true of music in the American republic. Why start complaining about it now? (3) Much criticism of popular culture is impressionistic and anecdotal. I would actually recommend Donald Sassoon's The Culture of the Europeans, from 1800 to Present. At 1400 pages it is obviously not a short read, but it is the kind of scholarship that conservatives are more likely to sneer at than replicate. (4) Thomas Bertonneau strikes me as an uncritical enthusiast for Eric Voegelin. Voegelin (1901-1986) was a conservative Catholic and supporter of the Dolfuss regime in Austria, who emigrated to the United States after the Anschluss. Thanks to a rave review of The New Science of Politics in Time by Whittaker Chambers, Voegelin gained an audience among the National Review crowd. Essentially, everything conservatives don't like since the Renaissance can be blamed on Gnosticism, the second century set of Christian heresies. This view, based on the assumption that Roman Catholicism is true, is obviously too sweeping and simplitic for present day intellectual historians. But it is seen a revival due to new interest in "political religion." Although the concept was criticized by Peter Gay back in the fifties, a good recent critique can be seen in Stanley Stowers' article in the January 2007 Journal of Contemporary History.

partisan said...

Some comments on the cultural aspects: (1) Is music and entertainment really more segmented today than in the past when many or most Americans lived in the countryside, when there was legal segregation, and much of the urban population was foreign born? Is it really true that people don't sing songs in the age of karaoke? (2) Instead of impression and anecdote about the state of culture, I would suggest Donald Sassoon's The Culture of the Europeans, from 1800 to the Present. (3) Considering Thomas Bertonneau's uncritical enthusiasm for the authoritarian Catholic Eric Voegelin, I would suggest Stanley Stowers in the January 2007 Journal of Contemporary History.

Robert Hagedorn said...

Do a search: The First Scandal Adam and Eve.

John Droz, jr. said...

Dr. Kaiser:

A friend sent me one of your essays that I thought was outstanding. Unfortunately I can't seem to find it in your archives. It had to do with current parallels with Germany.

Anyway I am a physicist and longtime environmental advocate. In my view what is happening is that real science is being diminished, and lobbyists are taking over on all levels. This is how such trivialities as wind energy have gotten so far.

I've written several pieces about this development.

Feel free to email me at "".


John Droz, jr.

David Kaiser said...

To Partisan:

You are correct about the composition of the Supreme Court majority--I overestimated Boomer influence by 1. It will be interesting to see if the ailing Ruth Bader Ginsberg steps down this year and whether Obama would be able to get a liberal successor through now. I have my doubts.

To the poster whose father was a truant officer (more or less): the changes you describe are a big part of what Strauss and Howe were about. Successful people have internalized rules, and at times they do not realize that other people haven't. But things have swung back in the other direction now.

Anonymous said...

I read the Thomas Bertonneau piece after you recommended it. I was unimpressed. To support his claims about education and political correctness, he bemoans his students reactions to a quote from Heraclitus: "Since mindfulness, of all things, is the ground of being, to speak one’s true mind, and to keep things known in common, serves all being, just as laws made clear uphold the city.”

Here Bertonneau shows himself to be pretentious and probably dishonest. Yes, the responses that his students make to the quote reveal that they do not understand it. However, Bertonneau
is using an unclear translation. As the Jesuits taught me in my high school Greek classes (primarily Attic and Homeric), a translator should make his translation in clear, preferably current language. Let him find a clearer translation before he complains about his students.

Second, Heraclitus is an unusual person to quote in a course about teaching popular culture. As I recall, Heraclitus had a rather poor opinion of Homer. (Presumably, Bertie knows this, but that is not clear.)

Beyond that, Bertie's choice of movies makes me wonder about him. When I was a child, I loved Errol Flynn's "Robin Hood" (I am not bothering with full titles), but having seen it since childhood, I have to admit that it is not a good movie.

Bertie feels that it is important that Robin Hood ends in marriage, not sex. All that proves is that the film appeared during the height of the Hays Code (sometimes called the Hays moral code).

Strangely enough, even today, some films either end with marriage or imply that one is soon to follow. Sometimes, a movie such as "Julie and Julia" will portray a successful marriage. (Let me add that I like "I Know Where I'm Going," but it is not an essential film.)

Finally, Bertie loves to use jargon as long as its his. I could go on, but why spend the time.

(On a side note, I do not like the comment sign-in system. I would prefer to give my name "Bill" and sign-in with my email.)

David Kaiser said...

To anonymous, directly above:

1. I think I indicated that I wasn't that crazy about all aspects of the Bertonneau piece myself. As I often do, I used it as a point of departure and bounced my own ideas off of it. He is far more conservative socially than I, but I don't think society can in the long run survive without some respect for authority and it's quite true that universities for decades now have taught contempt for all authority, with the result, perhaps, that only conservatives are inclined to trust authority nowadays.

2. -- that is, google--sets the comment rules, not me, but there's nothing to stop you from including your email address, as Dr. Droz did.