Monday, April 03, 2017

Ancient historians

Scholars of ancient intellectual history (and those of later times as well) sometimes think in terms of antithetical pairs, such as Plato vs. Aristotle (as seen in Raphael's famous fresco in the Vatican), as well as Homer vs. Vergil and Heracltus vs Parmenides. Among historians, the contrast is between Herodotus, ostensibly merely the retailer of fables and old wives' tales, and Thucydides, the relentless detector of the difference between truth and fiction. I have come to wonder about the validity of this contrast in my endeavor to detect and expose the noxious fabrications that have long circulated regarding same-sex behavior.

Nineteenth-century German historians like Creuzer and Droysen beatified Thucydides as the patron of their "scientific" approach.  This claim seems anachronistic since T.  did not have access to the equivalent of the troves of archival documents mined by his Germanic admirers.

Exceptionally, Hegel placed T. in the lowest rank of historians.  Writing about contemporary happenings,ghe Greek writer did not have the opportunity to see things in the perspective that distance affords.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

The Stefan George Circle

Recent discussions of the concept of the Deep State have evoked curiosity about forerunners. One such precursor, or so its would seem, was the Stefan George Circle, an elite secret society that formed around the German poet. Their aim was a conservative reshaping of the country based on the concept of Geheimes Deutschland or Secret Germany. It has been regarded as either a forerunner of Nazism or a conservative bulwark against it. (George himself resettled in Switzerland so as to avoid any contact with Hitler's emergent regime.). 
The members of the seemingly homophile fellowship were attracted by the aesthetic experience of discovering George's poetry, together with their veneration of his life and work. The ritual meetings were held by a conclave of the elect: in the first reunion after World War I, at Pentecost 1919, George assembled twelve disciples in Heidelberg, where the future historian Ernst Kantorowicz was solemnly inducted as a member of the community.
Stefan George aimed at creating a mystical, anti-modernist society, distinguished by its aesthetic superiority and within the framework of clear hierarchies. He fostered the cult of an idealistic Secret Germany (Geheimes Deutschland), a vision of an inner entity or mystical core as outlined by the cultural philosophers Paul de Lagarde and Julius Langbehn. Geheimes Deutschland was also the title of a poem published in George's late work Das Neue Reich ("The New Empire") in 1928, in which he proclaimed a new form of an intellectual and spiritual aristocracy, to some extent indebted to Friedrich Schiller's essay "On the Aesthetic Education of Man."
The transfiguration of a "German mind" below the surface of the actually-existing, profane German nation state has later been described as a model for the conservative German resistance to Nazism, culminating in the July 20 plot against Hitler's life. Indeed Alexander and Berthold von Stauffenberg had become acquainted with the Circle in 1923, shortly afterwards also their brother Claus who became a great admirer of George's work. According to some sources, at his execution the leader spoke his last words, "Es lebe das Geheime Deutschland!" ("Long live Secret Germany!").

Show more reactions

Monday, March 06, 2017

LGBT leaders

The current miniseries on ABC, When We Rise, is based on the work of the San Francisco activist Cleve Jones.  The following are some more general ideas that the series stimulated.

To the best of my knowledge, I never met Jones, so that the following composite character sketch is based on other LGBT leaders I have known. First, they were by and large "unemployable," conducting free-floating lives as best they could. A few like Legg and Hay had partners to support them; many did not. This indifference to worldly success was complemented by a fierce (and understandable) wish to have their contributions recognized when the time came. (Rare were individuals like Arthur Warner who eschewed any limelight; the success of the cause being all that mattered.). 

Then there was lifestyle asceticism. Kameny was famous for subsisting on Chef Boyardee, consumed straight from the can without heating. Morris Kight would wear a tattered old suit until it fell off him. 

They were also inclined to factionalism. The first case I encountered was Don Slater's notorious heist of ONE in 1965. Later I learned that this sort of thing was common even in the early days of the German movement. 

Our leaders were quick to take offense, and little given to acknowledging any earlier sources. I narrowly escaped assault when I suggested to Harry Hay that he and his friends had purloined the term "homophile" from European usage (it was first introduced In German in 1925).

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The cults of facts

I  am not tempted by the notion of "alternative facts." By the same token, there is something naive about the view, common in anglophone countries, that there are some easily detected nuggets of truth, called facts, that require no nuance or qualification. 

By contrast, in the Kantian tradition facts are always enveloped in a penumbra of expectation and interpretation. This does not mean that one should reject the finding that some assertions have a greater truth value than competing ones, but in many instances this superiority is less easily established than the cult of facts would suggest.

Outright lies should always be exposed as such. What I am questioning is whether, in combatting them, we may rely on on an indisputable body of facts. My early studies with Karl Popper taught me that there is a spectrum ranging from mathematical propositions, which have the highest truth value - on the one hand - and outright lies of the Goebbels type - on the other. My view is that in our society liberals are too quick to congratulate themselves with the claim that they adhere only to facts. 

With experience most politicians (of whatever stripe) learn to cultivate techniques of evasion, such as dancing around an issue, answering a question that was not asked, semantic quibbling ("it depends on what "is" means"), and so forth. Deployment of these techniques does not, in my view, reflect a strict adherence to facts, Yet to survive in politics it seems mandatory to acquire proficiency in the gray area populated by these verbal devices.

In her important monograph A Culture of Fact, England 1550-1720, Barbara J. Shapiro shows how our peculiar devotion to fact arose in England in the early modern period, when it became intertwined with empiricist philosophy. She traces the origins of this emphasis not to natural science but to legal discourse. Shapiro follows the concept's evolution and diffusion across a variety of disciplines in early modern England, examining how the emerging "culture of fact" shaped the epistemological assumptions undergirding each intellectual enterprise. In her view, the crucial first step in this transition occurred in the sixteenth century when the English common law established a definition of fact relying on eyewitnesses and testimony. Shapiro also recounts how England's preoccupation with fact permeated historiography, religion, and literature―which saw the rise of a fact-oriented fictional genre, the novel. I would add that, among academics at least, the prestige of fact only began to erode in the 1960s when the ideal of historical objectivity came under attack.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Anti-Trump Marches

Saturday's marches, in a whole host of cities, were indeed impressive. Perhaps, though, it is not too soon to ask what are the long-term prospects for social change as powered by such events? 

The gold standard is of course the 1963 civil-rights march on Washington, which yielded MLK's "I Have a Dream Speech." This signal event was preceded by a long period of preparation. The first march was proposed in 1941 by A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of SleepingCar Porters. African Americans had benefited less than other groups from New Deal programs during the Great Depression, and continuing racial discrimination excluded them from defense jobs in the early 1940s. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt showed little inclination to take action on the problem, Randolph called for a March on Washington by fifty thousand people. After repeated efforts to persuade Randolph and his fellow leaders that the march would be inadvisable, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 in June 1941, forbidding discrimination by any defense contractors and establishing the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) to investigate charges of racial discrimination. 

The March on Washington was then canceled. Yet the idea survived. I am most familiar with the LGBT marches in Washington, and by no means an expert, yet the comparison may yield some general conclusions. The efficacy of such events depends on two factors: 1) a specific focus on goals, centrally the redressing of long-standing grievances; and 2) a fairly lengthy period of gestation during which various strategies can be tried out and assessed. 

I am sorry to play the role of Debbie Downer, but I am not sure if these two conditions can be met in the wake of the current demonstrations, impressive as they are in terms of passion and numbers. The full horror, if you will, of Trump has only been evident for some months - not a long period. Moreover, the causes of the marchers are quite various, for they do not have a single focus, apart from dismay at the result of the election.

There remains the larger issue. Under what circumstances are we prepared to have public policy promulgated in the streets? Sometimes, I would say, yes. But the issue needs to be carefully assessed.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Deep State

    The concept of the Deep State has its roots in the Iron Law of Oligarchy propounded by Gaetano Mosca and his associates a hundred years ago. However, it has assumed an essentially American guise, first adumbrated by Eisenhower in his warning about the military-industrial complex.
    Yet our Deep State has evolved and grown since then, enormously, also forging international connections such as those evident in the Davos gatherings. In a nutshell it is essentially a matter of following the money, with much in the way of lucrative transactions occurring in the greater DC area. The huge payoffs constantly undergird the determination of the players to resist any steps to dismantle their ploys, not to mention the veil of silence that generally surrounds these operations as far as the general pubic knows. Many Washington insiders do know, but they prefer to keep their jobs instead of speaking out.
    Mike Lofgren, with much relevant experience, explains.

    In a must-read essay, former GOP congressional analyst Mike Lofgren analyzes America's "Deep State," in which elected and unelected figures collude to serve powerful vested interests.

    LikeShow more reactions

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Karl With

For some reason I thought back on one of my undergraduate teachers of art history at UCLA. Karl With was born in Germany in 1891. Neither Jewish nor a Communist, he left Nazi Germany out of principle, settling in Los Angeles.
As a kind of assistant, I frequently had occasion to listen to this professor's fascinating reminiscences, such as those stemming from the year he spent in Japan. At all events, towards the end of his life (he died in 1980) he was working on a book - never completed - on the basic principles of art, inspired I believe by his awareness of Bauhaus teachings. Karl With maintained that all art rested on a few primordial forms, such as the sphere, the pyramid, the cube, the rectangular solid, and a few others.
He asked other questions. Why do beer steins rest solidly on their base with a low center of gravity, while wine vessels have a stem separating them from the base? The reason is that we regard wine as a noble beverage that we seek to honor by elevating it from mere terrestrial reality; plebeian beer requires no such hoity-toity coddling. I am not much of a beer drinker, but I would not think of pouring that beverage into a wine glass.

 Karl With was a participant in one of the great intellectual developments of the time (the 1930s), the Transatlantic Migration of scholars and creative figures, mainly from Central Europe, to our shores. In its day Los Angeles was a prime goal. Some Hollywood figures, like Marlene Dietrich and Ernst Lubitsch, had come earlier. Others, such as Jean Renoir and Michelle Morgan, arrived later. There were also major writers such as Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht, not to omit the Englishmen Christopher Isherwood and Aldous Huxley. And one must not forget the two most influential composers, Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky. My parents moved in more modest literary circles, so that as a kid I did not meet any of these luminaries. When I came to New York for graduate work I did (though a different bunch); the contact changed my life fundamentally.