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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Narrative, the Narrative, the Narrative

Earlier this year history professor author Fred Siegel released an interesting and surprisingly good book titled,  The Revolt Against the Masses: How Liberalism Has Undermined the Middle Class.  The introduction begins:
This short book rewrites the history of modern American liberalism. It shows that what we think of liberalism today – the top and bottom coalition we associate with President Obama - began not with Progressivism or the New Deal but rather in the wake of the post-WWI disillusionment with American society. In the twenties, the first writers and thinkers to call themselves liberals adopted the hostility to bourgeois life that had long characterized European intellectuals of both the left and the right. The aim of liberalism’s foundational writers and thinkers such as Herbert Croly, Randolph Bourne, H.G. Wells, Sinclair Lewis and H.L Mencken was to create an American aristocracy of sorts, to provide a sense of hierarchy and order associated with European statism.

Like communism, Fabianism, and fascism, modern liberalism, critical of both capitalism and democracy, was born of a new class of politically self-conscious intellectuals. They despised both the individual businessman's pursuit of profit and the conventional individual's pursuit of pleasure, both of which were made possible by the lineaments of the limited nineteenth-century state.
The introduction concludes:


Liberalism, as a search for status, is sufficiently adaptable that even in failure, self-satisfaction trumps self-examination. As the critic Edmund Wilson noted without irony, the liberal (or “progressive reformer,” in his term) has “evolved a psychological mechanism which enables him to turn moral judgments against himself into moral judgments against society.”  This is a book about the inner life of American liberalism over the past ninety years and its love affair with its own ambitions and emotional impulses. Liberals believe that they deserve more power because they act on behalf of people's best interests – even if the darn fools don't know it.   (emphasis mine)
Thanks for demonstrating this so well Mr. Gruber:
“Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage,” says the MIT economist who helped write Obamacare. “And basically, call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever, but basically that was really, really critical for the thing to pass.”
Mr. Driscoll concludes:  "The left have displayed enormous condescension to voters in recent years; lying is merely one manifestation of that. And they wonder why they got clobbered last week."



The concluding chapter contains the following passage:
Liberalism, argued Herbert Croly and his heirs, rested on “disinterestedness.”   Experts and intellectuals could be trusted, their theory held, because, unlike the Jeffersonian small-business owners, they weren't motivated by narrow self-interest. But with the expansions of the Great Society and onward, much of the public came to see politicians in general and liberals in particular as engaged in the self-interested business of expanding government expressly to secure policies and privileges for themselves and their supporters. The growing importance of public-sector unions has greatly increased the sense that government has gone into business for itself.

In addition to dealing with increasingly complex and burdensome tax and regulatory regimes economic actors must contend with a bureaucracy and elected officials that have become practically parasitic.  Even when this problem was less pronounced, there were still limits to how much of a positive role the state could play.  As the story is usually told, there is a statist bias with many private actors being unfairly vilified.  Many such examples are in evidence in an old post titled revisiting economic history . (If you haven't seen this post before you might want to give it some attention.) Some of the portrayals are blatantly misleading others are more subtle.  Economic history is not the only area of inquiry  where the conventional wisdom is transmitted through very questionable story-lines. 



Returning to The Revolt Against the Masses, in a chapter titled Three Trials, the author provides the following (excerpts):


No one incident or event contributed more to the self-understanding of liberals or the way they conceived of their political rivals over the past half century than the Scopes “Monkey Trial,” or more precisely the version of the trial rendered in the wake of McCarthyism by the 1955 Broadway hit Inherit the Wind.
...

Beginning in the 1950s, the play Inherit the Wind and the two film versions of the stage production suffused the liberal imagination.
...

In the dramatized version of the case, which took considerable liberties with the historical record, the trial was initiated when Scopes, a high school biology teacher, was dragged out of his classroom by a mob and thrown into jail. In reality, as historian Edward Larson showed in his scrupulous rendering of the case based on primary sources, there was no mob, nor was there a jailing. Evolution had long been part of the Tennessee high school curriculum, and there had been no attempt to enforce the symbolic law – the Butler Act – that barred its teaching. In an era when science was seen as wondrous, this law was meant more as a matter of symbolism than substance. It was a period in which eugenics, which had first been introduced by Darwin's cousin Francis Galton, won strong support from liberals who supported both family planning and economic planning. Thirty-five states had enacted laws to restrain the ability of the genetically “unfit” to reproduce themselves.

The case was a contrivance from the outset. The American Civil Liberties Union, founded in the wake of WWI's repression, had initiated the case, which it saw as an opportunity to repeal the Butler Act while also making a name for itself. The ACLU ran newspaper ads across the state looking for a teacher who would be willing to cooperate with them in challenging the state law. They needed a defendant who would agree to be tried for violating the Butler Act. The town fathers of Dayton envisioned the trial as a potential boon that could put them on the map, and they convinced Scopes, a local high school teacher, to intentionally incriminate himself so that he would quality as a defendant and the state's case could go forward. His arrest was a friendly affair arranged by local boosters as a prelude to the show, which would make history by being the first trial broadcast on radio.
...

Mencken, who wrote about the trial for the Baltimore Sun, gilded the liberal disdain for Bryan by depicting him as a buffoonish bigot and the “idol of morondom.” Mencken, a eugenicist, despised Bryan as a demagogue “animated by the ambition of a common man to get his thumb into their eyes.” He mocked the locals as “Babbits,” “morons,” “peasants,” and “yokels,” which, to be fair, was no less caustic than his usual characterizations of the immigrant masses.

Bryan saw the Scopes trial as in part a matter of self-government. The trial, he wrote, raised the question of “whether the people...have a right to control the educational system which they have created and which they tax themselves to support.” By contrast, Mencken saw the trial, and Bryan in particular, as the living proof of why democracy was a despicable form of government. Mencken's Notes on Democracy (1926) argued that democracy was both impossible and undesirable. Kaiser Wilhelm II, by then dethroned, praised the book highly, but a friend sighed that he wished Mencken hadn't written it, “because it reveals too much about him.” It was a tedious, repetitious performance by an intellectual vaudevillian whose writing never rose above his resentments.

But Bryan, Mencken's avatar of dreadful democracy, was far from a bigoted provincial man. A well-read world traveler, Bryan had read On the Origin of Species in 1905 and had engaged in an ongoing debate about the book with eugenicist Henry Fairfield Osborn, the president of the American Museum of Natural History. The Great Commoner treated his talented wife as a partner and decried the sin of religious prejudice. He roundly criticized his supporters who attributed his 1908 defeat at the hands of William Howard Taft to a Catholic conspiracy, and he would later take Henry Ford publicly to task for publishing The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
...

Regardless of what happened in Dayton, the effect of the case was clear: European-like divisions, largely absent thus far in America, opened up between science and revealed religion – it was a chasm never to be closed. Absent the Scopes controversy, some of the fundamentalists might have drifted into the position already adopted by a few of their leaders that evolution was but another name for God's creation.
...

After Scopes, and the case's revival with Inherit the Wind, fundamentalists were seen by many Americans as not just wrong about evolution, which was clear enough, but so psychologically deranged that they needed to be barred from the public square.

The irony of the Scopes trial, notes historian Michael Kazin, was that it led liberals to tag Bryan, who in many ways was a proto-New Dealer, as a “right-wing authoritarian.” At the same time, it helped position Mencken – the rabidly anti-democratic and sometimes anti-Semitic supporter of eugenics who admired both the Kaiser and 1930s Germany – as “the champion of liberalism.” But this is less of an irony than it appears to Kazin. Modern liberalism, before, during, and since the New Deal, has been based in large measure on Croly's “exceptional fellow countrymen,” the professionals who feel contempt or pity for the unwashed and who are resentful that many business people are better off than they are. Bryan's humiliation became a central event in the liberal story of modern America; it linked together the post-WWI persecutions by rednecks, the execution of Saco and Vanzetti, and Sinclair Lewis's ever-popular It Can't Happen Here, the 1935 novel in which a Bryan-like leader established a dictatorship in America. It's a story whose echoes can still be heard during dinner-table conversations in America's hipper precincts.


I repeatedly hear about "the narrative" from my progressive friends.  My question is, "do you care how much in your story is fiction and how much is non-fiction?"  Even more than what is written in a history book, movies, plays and novels shape the culture.  As Breitbart observed and Lawrence Meyers explains, politics is downstream from culture.

20 comments:

erp said...

Howard, many many ago I began to keep a list of all the snide asides and throw-away lines which moved the narrative along in movies and television programs. When we retired and moved to Florida about 25 years ago, I lost those papers (and they were voluminous).

Not a day, probably not an hour, goes by without a non sequitur, Harry has this skill mastered, that moves the party line forward.

Just tonight we watched an old movie on TMC as we do almost every evening and in introducing a typical John Garfield gangster movie that had no political undertone at all, host Ben Mankiewicz, described Garfield as someone who courageously refused to answer questions of the HUAC.

I commend you on your ability to read this book. I don’t think I can absorb any more information on this subject than is already in my memory banks.

There are at least two and probably more generations of Americans who don’t know they are being played and I don’t see how that will change for the better, only for the worse as the schools use books where history has been rewritten and the narrative is interjected into every subject.

Clovis e Adri said...

Quite interesting it all, Howard.

I had never heard this other characterization of the events leading to the Scopes trial. To be honest though, I also never tried to read more than a few lines about the whole affair.

If true, I notice a bit of disingenuousness in both narratives.

In the Liberal one, for portraying it in so much white or black ink. And in the one presented in your post, for making little of this "Butler Act" - oh, it was a Law you know, but you didn't reeeeally needed to follow. Oh yeah? And what happened to all that complaining about too much regulation as a sword of Damocles?

Another thing that gives me pause is this characterization of Liberals as the only ones loathing the hoi polloi. In my experience, that's a very common trace to our elites, left or right, liberal or conservative, collectivists or individualists.

Peter said...

Great post, Howard. This subject is so far-ranging that trying to get a grip on the whole is like trying to grab a fistful of mercury. As he used the Scopes trial as an illustration, I'll stick with the religion vs. science wars. The Scopes trial isn't the only case where the narrative trumps truth in a "higher cause". Galileo's trial, the power and extent of the (Roman) Inquisition and even Salem are all regularly ripped out of time and context and distorted badly to fit the heroic, progressive "Age of Superstition to Age of Enlightenment" tale.

I am a veteran of quite a few lengthy debates on Darwinism and the origins of life 'n stuff on a number of blogs with some very intelligent people, both scientists and generalists. I have been repeatedly struck by how often those who claim to be guided exclusively by evidence and science will retreat hastily to empirical flights of fancy and "the narrative" when confronted by evidence that simply doesn't fit. People like Dawkins, Dennett, etc. are masters at mocking low-hanging fundamentalist fruit, but they become very unscientifically hostile and defensive when confronted with serious challenges from their intellectual peers. Their whole schtick relies heavily on the proposition that the epicentre of religious thinking is rural Appalachia.

The point isn't what is believed, it is the desperate tenacity with which the beliefs are held under the reign of scientism and the virulence of the ad hominem counter-attacks. Dissidents are to be silenced, not out-argued. Bryan is a perfect example, but there are many more, often at the hands of scientists and their liberal, secular fans who love to present diffident personas and insist they are open to revising their beliefs on the evidence, 'cause that's what scientists do.

Climate change is a classic example, but another seems to be what is going on in modern theoretical physics and cosmology. As physicist Paul Davies has noted, as more and more evidence is uncovered that poses serious challenges to the notion of an undesigned, non-teleological universe (there is much more than there was in the fifties), the more the profession has retreated to wild flights of unprovable, untestable fancy like multiverses and self-generating universes that, as any modern film buff knows, muddle the boundary between science and science fiction. Davies's conclusion is that it isn't science driving this, it is psychology, and that, just as 19th century believers were "shaken" and emotionally defensive about the notion of a purposeless world, so many modern scularists panic at the thought of one with purpose or even direction. Again, it's not what is believed in these timeless arguments, it is the hostility evinced at anyone who challenges them.

Once we move to general cultural issues, illustrations of this intellectual reign of terror multiply. But how do conservatives or independent thinkers generally confront this stuff in the public square without falling into the trap of advancing equally simplistic, "in your face" counter-narratives?

Bret said...

Peter asks: "But how do conservatives or independent thinkers generally confront this stuff in the public square without falling into the trap of advancing equally simplistic, "in your face" counter-narratives?"

We admit that narratives are fundamental to human functioning, that we all have narratives, and that we understand that we're debating opposing narratives and visions based on sparse, incomplete information as opposed to debating fact.

The only time the conflict of visions becomes epic is when one side obtains the power to ram their narrative down everybody else's throats. Since people need their narratives to function, forcing them to live by a different narrative is tantamount to killing them. And if you think I'm exaggerating, consider forced religious conversion. In "convert of I'll kill you" situations, some chose death.

Harry Eagar said...

Anyone who thinks Mencken was a liberal is thus disqualified from being taken seriously by anybody else.

Howard said...

Anyone who thinks Mencken was a liberal is thus disqualified from being taken seriously by anybody else.

So says the person who whines incessantly about people being victimized (tyrannized) but can't see any need to limit government. So, do we call you "pot" as in ..calling the kettle black, or "clown" as in ..Bozo the?

Howard said...

Davies's conclusion is that it isn't science driving this, it is psychology, and that, just as 19th century believers were "shaken" and emotionally defensive about the notion of a purposeless world, so many modern secularists panic at the thought of one with purpose or even direction. Again, it's not what is believed in these timeless arguments, it is the hostility evinced at anyone who challenges them.

Peter, glad you liked the post. The hostile behavior is a sign of both arrogance and desperation. There is no easy answer as to how to approach these discussions. A gentle suggestion as to how to incorporate the newer evidence is a start. If that doesn't go well, then give them the chance to show how close-minded and unreasonable they can be.

Harry Eagar said...

Let's stay on point. The question is not what I am but whether Mencken was a liberal.

Mencken didn't think so.

I was in a hurry and did not have time to address the other half of your weird post: Bryan.

Except for his religious lunacy, Bryan was a liberal. A big gummint, pacifist, pro-labor, anti-industrial concentrating liberal. He was called the Great Commoner for a reason and the conservatives feared and loathed him above any other American, even Debs.



Howard said...

The irony of the Scopes trial, notes historian Michael Kazin, was that it led liberals to tag Bryan, who in many ways was a proto-New Dealer, as a “right-wing authoritarian.” At the same time, it helped position Mencken – the rabidly anti-democratic and sometimes anti-Semitic supporter of eugenics who admired both the Kaiser and 1930s Germany – as “the champion of liberalism.”

Mr. Siegel is referring to something presented by Mr. Kazin. If either of them thought that Mencken was some kind of liberal, the word irony would not have appeared. Since Mr. Kazin is the one implying that somewhere someone at sometime may have considered Mencken a champion of liberalism, you would have to examine his source material to be sure what he was referring to... comprendo? See, this English thing isn't that difficult.

Harry Eagar said...

'Regardless of what happened in Dayton, the effect of the case was clear: European-like divisions, largely absent thus far in America, opened up between science and revealed religion – it was a chasm never to be closed. Absent the Scopes controversy, some of the fundamentalists might have drifted into the position already adopted by a few of their leaders that evolution was but another name for God's creation.'

If largely absent, why the antidarwinism laws?

Mencken once wrote (around 1900) that it was becoming difficult to find anyone who wanted to kill over the issue of infant damnation. Kazin needs to rethink his view of how Americans thought about science. Because, as Mencken later discovered in Dayton, you could still find people willing to kill over like issues.

I grew up not far from Dayton; real Murricans thee know -- and will tell you they have always known -- that religion trumps science.

It is worth recalling, also, that during the period in which Kazin imagines a growing enlightenment in America, the Catholic population was growing very fast and Catholicism was obscurantist.

Hey Skipper said...

It is worth recalling, also, that during the period in which Kazin imagines a growing enlightenment in America, the Catholic population was growing very fast and Catholicism was obscurantist.

It is worth noting the howling logical fallacy crushing that sentence.

Howard said...

Nice job Harry, thanks for strengthening the main point of the post.

In reality, as historian Edward Larson showed in his scrupulous rendering of the case based on primary sources, there was no mob, nor was there a jailing. Evolution had long been part of the Tennessee high school curriculum, and there had been no attempt to enforce the symbolic law – the Butler Act – that barred its teaching.

No mob, no jailing and evolution was actually being taught. The storyline of the play implied otherwise to support a misleading narrative. You reply with squirrel.

Peter said...

Really, Howard, who can be expected to indulge in factual accuracy and intellectual honesty when confronted by a rapidly growing Catholic obscurantist population?

Didn't the KKK used to talk like that? In any event, perhaps the time has come to start talking about "progressive obscurantism" in the rhetorical wars.

Annoying Old Guy said...

Peter;

Well, the KKK was a splinter group from the Democratic Party and Eagar is a hard core member of that party...

Howard said...

"progressive obscurantism"

Brilliant Peter, simply brilliant!

Harry Eagar said...

Guy, I expect better out of you than the 'Democrats were the party of slavery' meme, most especially in a post on this particular topic.

By way of adding context, when someone writes that evolution had been taught for years in Tennessee, only a small minority attended those classes. Then, and still, most Tennesseans are as innocent of science education as newborn lambs.

erp said...

... and you can lay that at the feet of the unions which for over 50 years have had control of the public schools in all "57 states."

Hey Skipper said...

Then, and still, most Tennesseans are as innocent of science education as newborn lambs.

Tennesseans are as innocent of science education as Hawaiians.

Bret said...

Harry wrote: "Then, and still, most Tennesseans are as innocent of science education as newborn lambs. "

Since Tennessee 8th grade science scores are nearly exactly average for the nation, I'm not sure what you're trying to say. That nobody in the whole country knows science? Or that you have incorrect prejudice when it comes to residents of the south/Tennessee?

Annoying Old Guy said...

Mr. Eagar;

I think it quite reasonable to point out historical facts. What exactly is the "better" you expect of me?

This is of course amusing coming from someone whose major modus operandi is to dredge up putative historical facts to indict present day conservatives/GOP/political opponents of the day.