Monday, October 8, 2018

The Books of My Life: Restless Souls

At the heart of and the motivating force for Leigh Eric Schmidt's Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality from Emerson to Oprah (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), is a critique of the critics of contemporay American spirituality. Schmidt, a professor in the Department of Religion at Princeton, takes the critics of American spirituality to task, whether critics of the academic apologetic and polemical sort like Robert Bellah, Richard Madsen, William Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven Tipton in their Habits of the Heart (1985), the critics of the political punditry sort like David Brooks in his Bobos in Paradise (2000), or "critics" of the we are OK if you want to be OK you need to be like us "orthodox" Christian sort such as James Herrick in his The Making of the New Spiruality (2003).

Schmidt argues that despite their ideological differences the apologetic and polemical critics of the new American spirituality share similar views on the "otherness" of the new American spirituality. The new American spirituality, they maintain, is new or novel (I would add that they share the notion that American spirituality is not quite American) and that it has, since its rise during in the wake of the culture wars of the mid and late 1960s, resulted in an increase in mass narcissism and aworld rejecting mysticism that is undermining American values, American duties, the American community, and American authority and, as a result, is hazardous to the continued survival of America.

Schmidt, in his wonderfully written and nicely researched book, however, shows that the "new" American spirituality isn't that new. Schmidt traces this liberal and radical American spirituality back to mid 19th century Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and Walt Whitman and through late 19th and 20th century spiritual seekers or wayfarers like Thomas Wentworth Higginson, William Rounseville Alger, Quaker John Greenleaf Whittier, Felix Adler, Ralph Waldo Trine, Sarah Farmer, founder of the Greenacre spiritualist retreat and school, Max Ehrmann, Quaker Rufus Jones, Quaker Thomas Kelly, both of whom played prominent roles in the Quaker retreat and study centre Pendle Hill, Christopher Isherwood, Gerald Hurd, Huston Smith, Howard Thurman, and Oprah. Schmidt finds the historical roots of this not so new American spirituality with its emphases on mysticism, solitude, the unity of all peoples and religions, and, worldly benevolence, not only in Transcendentalism but also in the metaphysics movement, mental healing, the new thought movement, Vedanta Hinduism, Buddhism, Liberal Protestantism, Liberal Social Gospel Protestantism, Unitarianism, Quakerism, Swedenborgianism, Reform Judaism, the health reform movement, the World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893, and nineteenth century anti-Calvinism.

In his sympathetic, empathetic, and "going native" history of American spirituality Schmidt is willing to concede to the critics of American spirituality that American spirituality is a product of a modernity and postmodernity characterised by globalisation, increasing narcissisms, an increasing individualism, and its fetishisation of the status quo, factors that gave rise in the American spirituality, as Schmidt notes, to the seeming contradictions of mystical disciplines for quieting self-realisation versus mystical world changing ideologies and paternalistic particularism versus somewhat paternalistic intellectual openness. He does not concede and he amply demonstrates that the new American spirituality led to quietest world rejection, however. As Schmidt notes, many American spiritualists were abolitionists, health reformers, peace activists, activists promoting women's rights, critics of colonialism, and critics of capitalism.  I would add that White American Conservative Evangelicalism with its universalisation of modern American capitalism, modern American nationalism, and modern American WASP culture is as modern if not more modern than American spirituality. American White Conservative Evangelicalism is also, I would add, far more dangerous to the survival of the US and the globe as a result of these fetishisations than American spirituality will ever be.

I highly recommend this wonderful book to anyone interested in culture studies, intellectual history, the history of spirituality, and the history of religion.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

The Books of My Life: Anna Akhmatova

I have mentioned before that I have a strong interest in Russian culture. It is not surprising, therefore, that at some point I would get around to reading Roberta Reeder's massive biography of Anna Akhmatova. Reeder notes on page 484 of her biography, critical analysis of Akhmatova's poetry, cultural and intellectual history of late Tsarist and Soviet Russia, and study of those in the Russian and Soviet intelligentsia who intersected with Akhmatova over her life that Akhmatova was not a saint but a human being. Despite this claim, however, Akmatova  comes off as yet another one of those saintly suffering Russian women in Reeder's Anna Akhmatova (New York: Picador, 1994).

On the plus side Reeder's book is the most thoroughly researched biography of Akmatova in the English language that I know of and her analysis of Akhmatova's poetry--and what wonderful poetry it is--is quite impressive and quite compelling. On the bad side Reeder's book reads more like a dictionary of somewhat related chapters rather than a tightly woven biography and cultural history largely because Reeder throws everything she knows about Akhmatova into the book regardless of whether it is significant or not. As a result Redder ends up falling prey to the historian's folly and fallacy of trivial pursuit. On the ugly side, Reeder gives us an Akhmatova who is a romantic and prophetic suffering servant making her book more akin to the hagiographies of earlier epochs than a critical biography of the 20th century. Reeder's saintly "realist" approach means that the author lacks the requisite critical distance from her subject that would allow her to write a critical biography of Akhmatova.

Despite all its warts I still recommend Reeder's book particularly if you are interested in Russian culture, Russian literature, and Russian poetry. Reeder's book is likely to remain the authoritative biography of Anna of all the Russias in the English language for some time.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Why I Quit the "Coop"

After working at Honest Weight for five years, five years that sometimes feels like ten, I decided to resign from the "Coop. The primary but not only reason I resigned was the fact that I was bullied, harassed, and embarrassed by a staff member at the “Coop” one not so wonderful Thursday evening

The harassment happened during my shift on 16 August 2018. One of the new front end supervisors, let’s call him N after that Russian tradition where the guilty are made anonymous thanks to the letter N, asked me, in front of a customer, why I did not come and get him to deal with an expired coupon. I didn’t because I have never been asked to do this by management and had never done this during my years at Honest Weight. My understanding was that once a coupon had expired it had expired. Later during the same shift, N, as I was bagging at another register being run by NN, walked up to me and muttered  "you decided to actually work tonight". First of all, joking or not joking aside, doing this in front of a customer and in public is very unprofessional and unacceptable in my book. Then, a minute or so later, I asked the same customer I was bagging for, if she wanted another shopping cart since her cart was full and I had to put a bag on top of other bags that contained soft items like bananas. N made fun of me for asking this question of the customer.

Management, of course, did its due diligence. It investigated the report I submitted on this incident. N apparently denied remembering anything. NN, apparently did a Sgt. Schultz saying she knew nothing, heard nothing, and saw nothing. I know, by the way, that double NN heard the third of N's school yard performances because she looked right at me and gave me one of those WTF quizzical looks.

Here was the rub. For the first time in my volunteer and staff work life at Honest Weight I didn’t feel comfortable working or even coming into the store. After all while one bullying time may be an accident, two bullying times is not a charm, and three bullying times is a pattern of behaviour.

After all that happened way too much proverbial water had passed under that proverbial bridge. Additionally, I really don't need to work at Honest Weight to make it economically. Add to this my health problems--asthma, sinusitis, osteoporosis, and degenerative musculoskeletal arthritis, all of which were affecting me more and more at work--and it was was perhaps the right time to go.

For the most part, I enjoyed working at Honest Weight over the years. It has, of course, always been a crazy place to work with its petty and silly political cold and hot wars and its quite evident inconsistencies and contradictions. Still I will probably miss it once in a while.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The Books of My Life: Return From the Natives

Peter Mandler's Return from the Natives: How Margaret Mead Won the Second World War and Lost the Cold War (London: Yale University Press, 2013) is a superb archive driven and theoretically aware exploration of the role Social Scientists played in World War Two and the Cold War. At the heart of Mandler's book are Cultural Anthropologists Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, Social Anthropologist, linguist, Semiologist, and cyberneticist Gregory Bateson, and neo-Freudian Geoffrey. Though Mead, Benedict, Bateson, and Gorer are centre stage in Mandler's book other famous and not so celebrated Social Scientists, like Claire Hold, Elizabeth Hoyt, Métraux, Clyde Kluckhohn, Nathan Leites, John Dollard, Samuel Stouffer, Edward Hall,  Robert and Helen Lynd, Erich Fromm, David Reisman, and Ralph Linton--who comes off as a misogynist macho jerk--make important cameo appearances in Mandler's book as well.

Mandler's Return from the Natives, which is part biography, part history of the Social Sciences, part social and cultural theory critique, part biography, particularly of Mead, Benedict, Bateson, and Gorer, is an important and nuanced corrective to much contemporary history of Social Science analysis that sees Social Scientists in World War Two and the Cold War as top down social engineers. Mandler argues, rightly I think, that there were more than one type of social engineering during World War Two and the Cold War: top down social engineering and social engineering for a respect of global diversity and a respect for other cultures. Mead"s and Benedict's engineering for cultural diversity with its Boasian anti-racism and cultural relativism, falls into the latter category. Mandler's book is also an exploration and critique of neo-Freudianism, the attempt to contextualise Freud more broadly in sociological, ethnological, and ethnographic terms. In Mead's, Benedict's, and Gorer's case this neo-Freudianism led to the development of the culture and personality school of 1930s to 1960s Cultural Anthropology, and particularly in Gorer's case, gave rise to the notion that national character was the product of swaddling and toilet training processes that took place during infancy. As Mandler notes such and approach saw culture in holistic and ultimately static and I would argue functionalist terms and had little place for the role economic, political, and cultural factors played in national character and social and cultural change. Mandler notes that the Mead edited collection Cultural Patterns and Technical Change, which was written for UNESCO, prefigures the critiques of international development as imperialism (economic, political, cultural) one finds in post-Vietnam era Social Science. Finally, Mandler notes that Mead, particularly during the Cold War, often had one foot in the engineering in the name of American nationalism camp and the be wary of nationalist social engineering relativist camps as a result of her attempt to gain government funding for Cultural Anthropology in the wake of World War II and to promote cultural relativist sensitivities in the American government and its intelligence apparatuses.

Mandler's book is one of those books like Ketih Thomas's Religion and the Decline of Magic--a book which had an immense impact on my intellectual life--that I would put in the pantheon of published works that I have read. It is a book that, in my opinion should be read by every Social Scientist and Historian and which should be read by everyone in government service. I can't recommend it more highly.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

The Books of My Life: The Poltics of Rage

If you want to understand how the Republican Party of today morphed into the Dixicrats of yesteryear there is no better book you can read than Emory historian Dan Carter's The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995). Carter's book, which is part biography and part history of post-World War II American politics, explores the role Alabama politician and former Alabama Governor George C. Wallace played in what Carter calls the Southernisation of American politics or what I call the dixiefornication of American politics.

Wallace, in the 1960s and 1970s, as Carter shows, used the politics of White rage and resentment (negative emotions are easy to manipulate) over integration, busing to achieve integration, federal government "tyranny", the "tyranny of the federal courts (both of which were pushing integration at the time), high taxes, welfare freeloaders and cheats (a code word for Blacks), the lack of law and order (code words for dissidents, civil rights activists and Blacks protesting in the streets), along with the rhetoric of states rights (a code word for keeping your hands off of our Jim Crow and our local schools), the far too great expansion of the federal government and government spending (code word for welfare spending on Blacks), anti-communism, anti-counterculturalism, and anti-intellectualism to achieve political prominence and notoriety not only in his Deep South home but also in the American North and West in the 1960s and 1970s thanks to the appeal of these issues to Southern Whites, angry White Southern evangelicals (custodians of the lost cause living the myth of being poor poor persecuted Christians), angry suburban Whites, angry Catholic Ethnic Whites, and angry blue collar Whites.

Republican Richard Nixon and strategist Kevin Phillips would, of course, steal Wallace's thunder in order to appeal to the same White rageoholics Wallace did helping, in the process, to create a new Republican Party that today is dominated by perhaps the most dixiefornicated of New Yorkers, President Donald Trump, who is, in many ways, the ghost of George Wallace right down to his ties to the KKK, White Supremacists, and his use of manichean rhetoric to stir up his "saintly" supporters against the "demons" of the press and "liberal" protesters in his audience, who, like those at George Wallace political revivals, were also physically attacked. Sometimes, it seems, history runs in cycles. 

While I found the political history of the book more compelling than the biographical parts I still highly recommend Carter's excellent and insightful book. If you have an interest in the history of the Republican Party particularly in the post WWII period or a history of the dixiefornication of America, check it out.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

The Books of My Life: John Wayne's America

Over the years I have watched a lot of films including films starring the Duke, John Wayne. Recently I watched several movies starring the Duke, that I had never seen before: the Warner Brothers B Westerns Ride Him Cowboy (1932), please no jokes, The Big Stampede (1932), Haunted Gold (1932), and The Man from Monterey, two war pictures Wayne starred in, Back to Bataan (RKO, 1945) and Operation Pacific (Warner Brothers, 1951), and one war picture Wayne both starred in and directed, The Green Berets (Warner Brothers and Batjac, Wayne's company, 1968).

The Warner's B Westerns were, by and large, formulaic like all genre pictures. In most of them the Duke and his horse Duke were sent to some town, generally to deal with the bad guys. There he defeated the bad guys, found girl, who generally had some relationship, with a crypto bad guy, and eventually, one presumes, got hitched to girl. Of the four Warner's B Westerns I watched  I found Haunted Gold to be the most interesting thanks to its attempt to marry the Western genre to the Gothic genre. That said, I don't think I would watch any of these films again for entertainment purposes.

The Duke's war films I watched were really not that different from the Western films. The Duke and his band of merry good guys beat back the bad guys (be they the Japanese or the Vietnamese) with the help of their buddies (be they Filipino guerillas or the South Vietnamese) at, in the case of The Green Berets, the appropriately named Dodge City.

After watching these films I decided to read Garry Wills's interesting book John Wayne's America: The Politics of Celebrity (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997), a book I have wanted to read for some time.  The book, by the way, was published as John Wayne: The Politics of Celebrity by Faber and Faber in the UK and Australia.

For Wills "John Wayne" is an American symbol grounded in the key American myths of the frontier with its wide open spaces, the myth of American exceptionalism and its ever moving and colonising manifest destiny, and the myth of the American wilderness where some American men, like "Wayne" go to in order to remain untrammelled and free to roam.

It took years, as Wills notes, for Marion Morrison to become the American symbol "John Wayne". Three directors would, according to Wills, play major roles in the creation of the mythic Duke: Raoul Walsh, Howard Hawks, and John Ford. In Walsh's 1930 film The Big Trail, the first film "Wayne" got star billing in, Walsh created a "Wayne" who was at ease in the wild, so at ease, as "Wayne's" physical movements show, that he was almost a part of the wilderness of the American West. In Howard Hawk's Red River (made in 1946 but not released until 1948, Monterrey Productions, Hawks's company, and United Artists), a film that gave birth to the post-World War II symbol of the "Duke", Hawks created a "John Wayne" who was melancholy and weighed down by a sense of responsibility. In the 1950s and 1960s "Wayne" became the symbol of Cold War American imperial power, thanks, in part, to John Ford films like The Searchers (Warner Brothers, 1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (Paramount, 1962), and anti-communist action adventure films Big Jim McLain (Warner Brothers, 1952), a film in which "Wayne" stars as a HUAC investigator. Imprinting the legend!

When I was a postgraduate student at the University of Notre Dame I sat in on an American Studies seminar offered by Wills while he was a visiting scholar in South Bend. It was a very interesting experience. So was reading his cultural historical study of "John Wayne" the symbol, the John Wayne who went to war only on celluloid--something for which, John Ford, who did go to war, apparently never forgive "Wayne" for--and the "John Wayne" who became the very symbol for many Americans--Wills calls them Wayneoliters--of America itself, of American individualism, of American destiny, and of real Americanism.

There were several things I liked about Wills's book including his emphasis on culture, the interplay of culture, politics, and biography, and his emphasis on "Wayne" as an actor, on "Wayne's" celluloid body movements and speech patterns. There were a few things that annoyed me about the book. Wills poo pahs auteurism at one point noting that film is a collaborative medium, and simultaneously praises and explores the themes of directors like Walsh, Hawks, including Hawks's role in reworking the scripts of Red River, and Ford, making the case for auteurism in the process. Additionally, there were times I felt Wills got a bit off the beaten track such as when he went on for several pages about the history of the Alamo in his chapters of "John Wayne's" film The Alamo (Batjac, United Artists, 1960).

Some Wayneoliters, by the way, have been critical of Wills's book. But for them "Wayne" is not a symbol. For them the myth is the "reality".


Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Musings on the Big Cube

Recently I watched the 1969 American and Mexican film The Big Cube. I didn't think it was a particularly good film. I did, however, think it was an interesting film. It seemed to me, as I was watching The Big Cube, that the best way to categorise the film is as a rare example of an Acid Noir film. In the film, Johnny (George Chakiris) is what, I suppose, we might call a narcissistic homme fatale. Johnny, you see, is using  LSD not only recreationally but also as a weapon, as a means to drive the step mother,  Adriana (Lana Turner), of the woman he wants to marry, Lisa (Karin Mossberg), mad so that she can inherit the wealth of Lisa's rich recently deceased father and he, Johnny, can become rich. As is often the case in American genre films Johnny gets his comeuppance at the end of The Big Cube as he is driven mad thanks to taking way too much acid in a delerium tremens night. As for Adriana, she is saved just in the nick of time from a life of forgetful madness by Lisa and Adriana's playwright friend, Frederick (Richard Egan), who Adriana, of course, marries at The Big Cube's happy end.