Sunday, March 22, 2015

Political Correctness (PC)

Sometimes we hear that the concept of “political correctness” (or PC) is a mere chimera invented by conservatives to vilify the left.  This claim is not factual, because the origins of the concept lie clearly on the left
In the early-to-mid 20th century, deployment of the expression "politically correct" was part and parcel of the dogmatic application of Stalinist doctrine.  What it actually consisted of was the subject of an extended three-cornered debate among formal Communists (members of the Communist Party, CP), Trotskyists, and Socialists. As it was generally employed, however, the phrase served as shorthand for the Communist party line, which stipulated "correct" positions on many issues. Of course the party line was always changing so that yesterday's political correctness became incorrect. A good example is the CP line on the Nazi regime.  Up to August 23, 1939, the Nazis were fascist beasts; after the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Agreement they became de facto allies of the Soviet Union, with the two countries in accord as to the decadence of the Western democracies. Two years later, in June 22, 1941, the line changed again when Hitler invaded the USSR.

According to Herbert Kohl, writing about debates in New York in the late 1940s and early 1950s:  "The term “politically correct” was used disparagingly, to refer to someone whose loyalty to the CP line overrode compassion, and led to bad politics. It was used by Socialists against Communists, and was meant to separate out Socialists who believed in egalitarian moral ideas from dogmatic Communists who would advocate and defend party positions regardless of their moral substance."

In the 1970s, the New Left purloined the term political correctness from the old left. For example, in "The Black Woman: An Anthology" (1970), Toni Cade Bambara maintained that "a man cannot be politically correct and a [male] chauvinist, too." Sometimes the expression was used ironically or in a jocular fashion, but everyone who adopted it took the underlying idea seriously. There were correct thoughts and incorrect ones. I remember this miasma personally when the neo-Marxist wave briefly swamped gay liberation in the early seventies. Those were trying times,  Yet the history is not assisted by the claim that PC is merely an opportunistic conservative device.  It was the left that invented and promoted this misleading concept.

Whatever ones view about the particular issues, two things are wrong with the concept of political correctness.  1) It posits certainty about issues that are generally contestable, locating the source of this certainty in some particular political party or tendency, which has the power to arbitrate disputes and lay down the correct line.  2) In practice PC is strangely variable. Here is an example from my own experience.  In the 1970s trans people, especially drag queens, were anathema in mainstream gay-liberation circles.  We were told in no uncertain terms that these individuals were simply mocking women.  They were enacting a spectacle of misogyny, and that was all there was to it.  That was the view that was politically correct in those days.  Now in the 21st century, though, matters have come full circle, and trans people are in the forefront of a new and more flexible definition of gender, one that is to the benefit of all of us.  That is the new political correctness on this issue.  I take no view about the merits of these opinions: I am simply exhibiting the instability of the “correct” view.

Sunday, March 08, 2015


A few years ago I had a discussion with a fellow art historian about the French writer Jean Cocteau. My friend maintained that Cocteau's only significance was his brief role as a satellite of Pablo Picasso. Wrong.
To be sure, Cocteau may now seem somewhat dated, and his reputation is still suffering from homophobic attacks on the part of the Surrealists. To my mind, Cocteau had two main accomplishments.
1) With La Machine Infernale in 1934 he discovered a viable way ofmodernizing Greek tragedy. In this country that approach came to fruition much later with Schechner's Dionysus in 69, but it has dominated productions of the Greek classics ever since.
2) In the immediate postwar years after 1945 there were two models of film making: the realism of Hollywood and the neo-realism of Rosselini and other Italian directors. Without denigrating either one - and I love Hollywood noirs - there was a great need for another template, one that was more poetic. Cocteau provided this alternative in such evocative films as Les Parents Terribles (1948), Beauty and the Beast (1946), and Orpheus (1949).

In winter's grip

Snowed in, I decided to emulate my true culture heroes, the scholar-poets of traditional China who, in their humble hermitages, loved nothing more than to study with the seasons winging past. Study the classics, above all. I decided not to focus on the traditional favorites of the Tang dynasty, those that everyone knows or should know: Li Bo, Dufu, and Wang Wei. They are truly great ones. Nor would I read, once again, the 305 poems of Confucius' Book of Songs.
Instead I prefer to focus on the era in between: the writers of the Han and Six Dynasties. There is much of enduring interest there: longing and separation, observations of nature, the transience of earthly ambitions, subtle intimations of spirituality.

If only my Chinese would get better! But I do what I can with English and French.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Art books

Art: how does one contract the bug?

Living in NYC I am surrounded by so much art, that there is no way to encompass it. Yet in the years after WWII I grew up in Southern California, then pretty much a cultural desert. How does someone in the provinces learn about art? There were of course the art magazines, but since they were not usually sold on newsstands, in high school I was oblivious to their existence. But, haunting the public libraries as it did, books I knew about. 

There were four significant publishers in those days. First, was a grand institution, Phaidon Press, started in the 1920s in Vienna and successfully transplanted to England. I remember being struck by their edition of Berenson's Italian Painters of the Renaissance. Even though I subsequently lost my enthusiasm for BB, that was a start. There were also books by the Museum of Modern Art, with the Picasso one hitting the bull's-eye for me. Most of these books had few or any color plates. But the somewhat garish Skira books from Switzerland were all illustrated in color. Color too was the favorite of the New York publisher Harry N. Abrams, who published two major works by Meyer Schapiro, on Van Gogh and Cézanne. 

Today, art publishing seems more diffuse, with most books printed in Asia, so there is less dependence on a few sources.

A friend notes the role of museum sites on line nowadays.  They are good and getting better, but how many know about them?  There is also for better or worse the role of the book as a commodity.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Beachy's Gay Berlin

While it offers little that is new, this book is readable, covering an important period in gay history. Beachy was not ploughing fresh ground - not even in the English-speaking world. Exactly forty years ago, there appeared the breakthrough book of John Lauritsen and David Thorstad, The Early Homosexual Rights Movement (1864-1935). Anyone who was keeping abreast of these matters in those exciting days of gay liberation read this revelatory book. I certainly did. It was buttressed by a similar volume by James Steakley. Then in 1975, the Arno Press issued an important set of reprints, including a volume of Documents of the Homosexual Rights Movement in Germany (1836-1927), as well as stout volumes by K.H. Ulrichs, Benedict Friedlaender, and Ferdinand Kaarsch-Haack. The last volume is particularly important since it covers same-sex behavior among tribal peoples, a true first. Initially, Magnus Hirschfeld's magnum opus of 1914 was hard to find, but then it was republished in Germany and translated into English. So for anyone curious to look - and we all should be - a lot of valuable information has been available now for years.

These publications were the foundation of the material summarized in the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, which appeared in New York in 1990.

Beachy does offer an innovation of a sort. He accepts the Social Constructionist view that the modern homosexual identity emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century. However, he wishes to shift the primary locus of that change from Britain, France and the US to Germany, specifically to Berlin. The reason it seems is the interaction of two factors: an upsurge of elite scholarly and medical writing, some of it by homosexuals themselves; and the flowering of a bar and entertainment subculture. The last was swept away after 1933, to be reinvented after World War II. As for the writings, some of which I have mentioned above, their circulation was limited to a small circle of intellectuals. It is not clear how these two disparate factors interacted to produce a new identity. Now somewhat dated, the identity thesis is itself questionable, inasmuch as human beings have engaged in same-sex acts from time immemorial.

Some have complained that all this is ancient history - of only antiquarian interest. What does this stuff have to do with us? There are in fact several connections. In 1924 when Henry Gerber started the first (unfortunately temporary) gay rights group in Chicago. he was specifically imitating the German groups. As a soldier, Gerber had been stationed with the US Army in Germany. Later, when it was launched in LA, the gay movement as we came to know it adopted the term "homophile." This expression was invented by a German, a man named Karl-Günther Heimsoth: via Isherwood and others the adjective came to circulate among the LA founders. Finally, Kinsey amassed a large collection of the German books, some of which he had translated for the use of his own group. Kinsey also emulated Hirschfeld's system of gathering masses of case histories.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Alan Turing film

I got round to seeing "The Imitation Game" yesterday. I found it to be more accurate than I had expected. Moreover, since it was not a documentary, one must allow for dramatic license - especially if it is in a good cause. Yet how much is this a good cause? Mainly it is I think, but still there are elisions and exaggerations that are misleading.
Here are three significant flaws.
1) As usual, the Polish contribution in the thirties is obscured. Polish mathematicians cracked the code and hit on the idea of a machine to keep up with the daily German changes. Turing's more elaborate machine was an extension of this principle. In the movie the Poles are only given fleeting credit for bringing the machine itself, not for their essential work in dealing with it.
2) Turing seems to have had no contact with the Soviet spy. That fictional relationship seems to be put in to suggest, falsely, that Bletchley Park had something to do with Stalingrad. It did not. It was the Red Army that won the war - not as bizarrely suggested here, Alan Turing. At the end of the film we are told that historians believe that Turing shortened the war by two years. What historians?
3) Turing's arrest and conviction for homosexual offenses were horrible. However, the chemical castration was temporary and he ended it about a year before his apparent suicide. There is no certainty that he did it with a poisoned apple.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Transatlantic Migration

The rise of Nazism forced many professors and other intellectuals to leave Germany, generally for the English-speaking countries. The Austrians came soon after. There were smaller contingents from Hungary, Italy, and France. I have a personal interest in this matter because by and large these are the brilliant individuals who educated me.

Recently the fructifying effect of this elite migration has been the subject of a good many monographs. Generally, these are organized on a disciplinary basis. An exception, casting a wider net is Mitchell G. Ash and Alfons Söllner, eds., Forced Migration and Scientific Change: Emigré German-speaking Scientists and Scholars after 1933, Cambridge, 2002 (Publications of the German Historical Institute). Among the topics included in this book are these: physics, life, and contingency: Born, Schrödinger, and Weyl in exile; the impact of German medical scientists on British medicine: a case study of Oxford, 1933–45; emigré psychologists after 1933: the cultural coding of scientific and professional practices; psychoanalysis: from Oedipus to culture; dismissal and emigration of German-speaking economists after 1933; the Vienna Circle in the United States and empirical research methods in sociology; from public law to political science.

Here is a new classification, emphasizing disciplinary cross-overs.

THE HUMANISTS.  The operated in a whole array of fields, including history, classics, literary studies, art history, musicology, political theory, and traditional philosophy (e. g. Theodor Mommsen, WernerJaeger, Erich Auerbach, Erwin Panofsky, Manfred Bukofzer, Hannah Arendt, and Ernst Cassirer). These scholars sought to provide more searching and precise interpretations of traditional culture, without intending to rock the boat.

THE SUBVERSIVES. Most prominent were the Marxists (Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno), though they had to tread carefully because of anticommunism. Then there were the logical positivists (Rudolf Carnap, Hans Reichenbach) who sought to demolish all earlier philosophy, replacing it with a new model ostensibly more suited to a scientific age. In art, the surrealists and abstractionists wanted to replace earlier art with their own creations, as did modernist architects such as Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Finally, the Freudians and other psychotherapists practiced subversion on the individual level.

THE SCIENTISTS and MATHEMATICIANS allied with them. Here Albert Einstein is the iconic figure. However, there were also crack mathematicians such as Kurt Gödel and John von Neumann. For their part, Enrico Fermi, Edward Teller and others were instrumental in creating the atomic bomb.

THE PERFORMING ARTISTS.  They sought to raise standards in their own field.  Conductors included Julius Rudel and Bruno Walter; composers, Paul Hindemith and Arnold Schoenberg.  Hollywood and Southern California welcomed directors like Ernst Lubitsch and Billie Wilder, and also writers like Bertold Brecht and Thomas Mann.


Yesterday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art I took in the current exhibition of Cézanne's portraits of his companion, later his wife, Hortense Fiquet. The sitter seems lost in a world all her own, while the artist's approach is cool and detached. Contrast the large offering of Picasso's portraits of his own wife in his later years, Jacqueline Roque, now at Pace. The big canvases are filled with fiery colors and the quasiexpressionistic distortions of the artist's later years. Why this difference? Is it the glacial, methodical Frenchman, a true disciple of Descartes, vs. the Spaniard's "fandango" exuberance?

I don't think so. I learned from E. H. Gombrich to be wary of the temptation of the physiognomic fallacy, to try to psychoanalyze portraits for a true index of feelings. The art of portraiture has its own conventions, which offset any emotional weighting we may detect in them.

The relationship of Cézanne and his wife was stable, so both must have been satisfied with it. And so was Picasso's relationship with Jacqueline, who proved a highly competent manager of his household and not just a sex object.…/listings/…/madame-cezanne

Friday, December 05, 2014

Nietzsche and Pound

I am currently working on a piece comparing and contrasting two archetypically controversial figures of modern times: Friedrich Nietzsche and Ezra Pound. Electronic searches have yielded several respectful comments by Pound in his earlier years regarding the German thinker.
Yet quite by accident I came across a real gem. Writing in 1933 about the concept of the Will to Power, Pound dismissed N. as a "hysterical teuto-pollak," managing to combine two ethnic stereotypes into one put-down. In a sense his source was Nietzsche himself, because the philosopher believed himself to be of aristocratic Polish extraction (a view that has since been refuted). When Nietzsche's writings were first received in the US, however, some ascribed his emotional intensity to his "Slavonic" heritage.
After teaching for many years in an inner-city college, I learned to be wary of stereotypes based on my students' background. Any assumptions of that kind were almost invariably wrong. Many though still cherish such judgments.