Saturday, September 22, 2012

Existentialism in America: black, white, left, right

On Richard Wright and Kierkegaard, an anecdote which C.L.R. James used to relate:
"Kierkegaard is one of the great writers of today. He is one of the men who, during the last twenty or thirty years, modern civilization has recognized as a man whose writings express the modern temperament and the modern personality. And Dick assured me that he was reading Kierkegaard because everything he read in Kierkegaard he had known before. What he was telling me was that he was a black man in the United States and that gave him an insight into what today is the universal opinion and attitude of the modern personality. I believe that is a matter that is not only black studies, but is white studies too. I believe that that is some form of study which is open to any university: Federal City College, Harvard, etc. It is not an ethnic matter. I knew Wright well enough to know that he meant it. I didn’t ask him much because I thought he meant me to understand something. And I understood it. I didn’t have to ask him about that. What there was in Dick’s life, what there was in the experience of a black man in the United States in the 1930s that made him understand everything that Kierkegaard had written before he had read it and the things that made Kierkegaard the famous writer that he is today? That is something that I believe has to be studied."

—— C.L.R. James, "Black Studies and the Contemporary Student" (1969)

Richard Wright and C.L.R. James were great thinkers of the modern condition in the mid-20th century. Their understandings became highlighted in the 1990s, notably by the Black British scholar Paul Gilroy (The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, 1993). Constance Webb, James's second wife and a remarkable personality in her own right, also recognized this about Wright in the 1940s.

Another major theme of James was the difference between "the old world and the new", i.e. Europe and the Americas. He did not cast this exclusively in racial terms, but as you can see, it is one factor he addressed. (A difference can also be argued regarding the appropriation of surrealism in the Caribbean and Latin America.)

But even within the United States, the appropriation of European thought has been widely differentiated, especially between left and right. This work is especially illuminating in this regard:

Cotkin, George. Existential America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

Contents: The "drizzly November" of the American soul -- Kierkegaard comes to America -- A Kierkegaardian age of anxiety -- The vogue of French existentialism -- New York intellectuals and French existentialists -- The canon of existentialism -- Cold rage : Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison -- Norman Mailer’s existential errand -- Robert Frank’s existential vision -- Camus’s rebels -- Existential feminists : Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan -- Conclusion: Existentialism today and tomorrow.

Here is a review I cited back in 2006:

Adamowski, T.H. "Out on Highway 61: Existentialism in America," University of Toronto Quarterly, Volume 74, Number 4, Fall 2005, pp. 913-933.

In Cotkin's book we can learn of the reactionary role played by the appropriation of Kierkegaard in the 1940s.  Here is one taste from Adamowski's review:
Cotkin never forgets the religious sources of existentialism, and thus Lowrie exists in his book as more than translator and editor. He had grown weary of the vapid ‘social gospel’ of 1920s and 1930s America, with its assumption that one might be virtuous and close to God merely because one held progressive social views. What does God care whether one is a progressive? Kierkegaard’s supreme indifference towards social moralizing offered escape from the anodyne social gospel, and Lowrie took up his own scholarly place in a tradition that would come to include, in Europe, Karl Barth’s The Epistle to the Romans (1968), as well as, in America, Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (1945) and The Irony of American History (1952).

This is quite different from the leftist engagement with Camus and Sartre in the 1950s and '60s.  Existentialism was popular among black as well as white intellectuals in this period.  But then consider black existentialism in the 1940s, in particular Wright's engagement with Kierkegaard. I actually got some "oral history" (actually in correspondence) from Constance Webb on Wright's engagement with existentialism, which I will have to publish one day. I don't think anyone has made a study of Wright's appropriation of Kierkegaard compared to the generally reactionary role Kierkegaard's thought played in the USA in the 1940s. Wright comes to quite different conclusions in his 1953 novel The Outsider.

For more on Richard Wright, see my web sites:

Richard Wright Study Guide

The Richard Wright Connection (The C.L.R. James Institute)

Interestingly, the Richard Wright quotes collected in Wikipedia draw substantially on my work as a source:

Richard Wright - Wikiquote

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Lenin on political agitation, liberalism, & the Russian Orthodox Church

V. I. Lenin, 'Political Agitation and “The Class Point of View”' [Iskra, No. 16, February 1, 1902], in Lenin Collected Works, Vol. 5 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1961), pp. 337-343.

Here is a sample:
 “What does our ’intellectual’, frivolous crowd that instigates and applauds the Stakhoviches care for the affairs of our sacred orthodox faith and our time-honoured attitude towards it?”... Once again, so much the worse for you, gentlemen, champions of the autocracy, the orthodox faith, and the national essence. A fine system indeed our police ridden autocracy must be, if it has permeated even religion with the spirit of the prison-cell, so that the “Stakhoviches” (who have no firm convictions in matters of religion, but who are interested, as we shall see, in preserving a stable religion) become utterly indifferent (if not actually hostile) to this notorious “national” faith. "... They call our faith a delusion!! They mock at us because, thanks to this ’delusion’, we fear and try to avoid sin and we carry out our obligations uncomplainingly, no matter how severe they may be; because we find the strength and courage to bear sorrow and privations and forbear pride in times of success and good fortune...." So! The orthodox faith is dear to them because it teaches people to bear misery “uncomplainingly”. What a profitable faith it is indeed for the governing classes! In a society so organised that an insignificant minority enjoys wealth and power, while the masses constantly suffer “privations” and bear “severe obligations”, it is quite natural for the exploiters to sympathise with a religion that teaches people to bear “uncomplainingly” the hell on earth for the sake of an alleged celestial paradise. But in its zeal Moskovskiye Vedomosti became too garrulous. So garrulous, in fact, that unwittingly it spoke the truth. We read on: "... They do not suspect that if they, the Stakhoviches, eat well, sleep peacefully, and live merrily, it is thanks to this ’delusion’.”

The sacred truth! This is precisely the case. It is because religious “delusions” are so widespread among the masses that the Stakhoviches and the Oblomovs,” and all our capitalists who live by the labour of the masses, and even Moskovskiye Vedomosti itself, “sleep peacefully”. And the more education spreads among the people, the more will religious prejudices give way to socialist consciousness, the nearer will be the day of victory for the proletariat —the victory that will emancipate all oppressed classes from the slavery they endure in modern society.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Atheist: Madalyn Murray O’Hair (2)

As I have other priorities now, instead of turning my notes into a narrative, I will just reproduce my raw notes cum page references. This should at least give you an idea of O'Hair's wildly vacillating, contradictory and unstable self-positioning.

LeBeau, Bryan F. The Atheist: Madalyn Murray O’Hair. New York: New York University Press, 2003.

Order read: chapters 4-7, Introduction, 1-3, 8, Epilogue [disappearance & murder].


2ff: history of atheism

Octavius Brooks Frothingham: Free Religious Association, 1867
Felix Adler: Ethical Culture Federation, 1876
Emma Goldman

American Association for the Advancement of Atheism, 1925
Clarence Darrow
HL Mencken

9: O’Hair most influenced by AHA.

Humanist Fellowship, U of Chicago, 1927
Humanist Manifestos I & II

14-15: O’Hair not modest or low profile.  Also an anarchist, feminist, integrationist, internationalist.

Socially ostracized.


20: changed indelibly by Great Depression
25: marriage to steelworker (1941), WW II
27: William Murray born of another man

32: '50s radicalism.
Rejected ADA, attended meetings of SLP. Feminist, anti-suburban

33: Michael Fiorillo; Jan born
34: her kids & religion
35: against bourgeois morality. Interested in many causes. At odds with humanity.
36: M’s glowing account of domestic life. Wm’s refutation.
37: Sputnik --> socialism -->; SLP --> SWP
38: went to Howard, disillusioned, left. 1959: applied for Soviet citizenship.
39: goes to Paris, frustrated by efforts to emigrate to USSR
40: against prayer in Baltimore schools: 1959
43: 1959—M fights the schools.
ACLU & Baltimore Ethical Culture Society support this effort. (others not)
46: red-baiting, publicity, issue of truancy, ACLU hesitant
50: Jewish parents also stood up. ACLU recalcitrant.
51: M ditched Commie lawyer Harold Buchman, stuck with Jewish lawyer Leonard Kerpelman. Buchman complained about M’s association with anti-semitic Truth-Seeker.
52: Kerpelman bottom-feeder, orthodox Jew
55: Wm in high school. Support. AAAA.
55: Charles Smith (AAAA, Truth-Seeker) a bigot. M disliked fellow atheists as petty people.
56: May 15, 1962 --> Supreme Court

CHAPTER 2: Murray v. Curlett

62: Niebuhr extreme anti-communist propagandist, justified execution of Rosenbergs
legal precendents
72: Jews & others for Engel decision against school prayer
Catholics & conservative Protestants against
75: FBI opened file on M. M signs protest against RFK’s attempt to shut down Daily Worker.
M fired from city social work job.
76: 1962: managed Red bookshop, started nonprofit, newsletter.
78: criticism comes with financial support.
79: other groups hesitant to support her. Only a few supported with briefs.
92: Justice Stewart denied parallel with Brown v Board of Ed.

CHAPTER 3: “The Most Hated Woman in America”

94: Murray/Schempp decision affected 41% of public school districts. Supported by Jews and liberal Protestants.
Huge backlash. Attempts at Constitutional amendment.
Murray vs Schempp: M’s claims of her key role
100-2: M alienated everyone.
103: 1963—M forms organization
104: JFK assassination, Faor Play for Cuba, expunged records of any connection to Oswald. Later boasted about kicking out Marxists.
111: police melee. Arrested.
114: fled to Hawaii
116: troublemaking in Hawaii
117: other atheists fight M
118: fight with Wm (his accusations—mentally unbalanced?).
M in Life magazine.
120: Sat Evening Post article, 1964. M for anarchism, against communism.
120 ff: Post interview.

123: “I really don’t care that much about atheism. . . I’ve always been more interested in politics and social reform.” (Post interview)

124: Liston (Post interviewer): M full of paradoxes.
Robin born. Extradition appeal defeated.
135: Playboy interview.
Fled to Mexico.
126-7: Wm settles case. Distances self from student radicals, mom.
M arrested in Mexico.
129: extradited. Freed.

CHAPTER 4: “The Atheist”

M wanted a real man, but also intelligent and gentle. Married Richard O’Hair.

133-4: AA demographics: 1968: members live mostly in small communities nationwide. Some teens, some real old. Average member: 45 w/ 2 kids.
Mi claims little backsliding. Doesn’t like de-converts from “wild religions”. 10% from atheist homes. 40% Republicans, 10% Birchites, 40% Dems, rest on the left.
M defines freethought as rationalist and materialist.
136: M’s publicity campaign.
5 April 66: Post reports on M at Howard U speaks to 250 on church tax exemptions.
137: More aggressive in tone and on variety of issues
137-40: against Vietnam War, blames churches. Sees is as Christian-Buddhist war. Catholic Church bolstered corrupt rulers of S. Vietnam. Cardinal Spellman and war on godless communism. 1972 revelation of Protestant churches as stockholders in arms industry.
1969: Now on speaking platform with other notables.

Mail pro & con
Poor Richard’s Universal Life Church
Against NASA
Expands ops in ‘70s
Protests Pope
Protests FBI surveillance
God on currency

166-7: Interested in atheism in other countries. India. Claims most Indian philosophers are atheists. Quotes Debiprasad Chattopadhya. Enthusiastic about Gora’s atheist center. 1970: Gora toured internationally. 1978: O’Hairs visited India. United World Atheists. 1979: Edamarku visited Austin.

168: in 1976, M claims to have purged her organization of communists. 1976, 1979: Claims to be an anarchist. Interested in disarmament.

CHAPTER 5: “Why I Am an Atheist”

Kantian ethics

173-5: M vs other atheists!
174: against philosophers
175: practical atheism

178: contra agnosticism
178-9: “Humanists”

180: FCC bias
185ff: Radio: prominent freethinkers in history
Paine, Ethan Allen, Lincoln, Jefferson
Separationism: Holyoke, Kneeland
US Grant on taxing churches.
Taxing churches
School release time
200: Bradlaugh
201: Bradlaugh vs poverty of spirit
202-3: Ingersoll a favorite
203: feminism
206: Diderot & nun.
La Religeuse (nun) film

CHAPTER 6: Articulating the atheist position

On holy writings & historicity of Jesus, science & religion, On Catholicism & the rest of Xianity, on taking possession of the young, Freedom Under Siege [religion & social control], church & state, state aid to parochial schools

230-2: feminism. Troubled relation to ‘60s women.
236-7: 1947-54: American civil religion under Cold War/McCarthyism

CHAPTER 7: O’Hair’s Prominence Recedes

William’s messed-up life
1977 debates with evangelist Bob Harrington
1978: divorce case unsettled, M’s husband Richard dies

259-61: Wm loses his mind. 24 Jan 1980: conversion to Xianity

265: oaths—successful lawsuits
268: financial problems
269: anti-Reagan
270: anti-communism reliant on religion
New Right. Aggressive foreign policy, favoring wealthy.
Advocated arms control, sharing wealth.
272: pessimistic
273: visited USSR in 1989, Russians interested in religious literature.
Health deteriorating.
274: 1984—worked for Larry Flynt
275: Flynt went back on deal when released from prison
1984 election—M disgruntled with “ruthless rampant capitalism”
276: no more lawsuits, situation hopeless.

277: diary entry Nov. 1985: “Most persons who think they are Atheists are ass-holes and nit-wits.” We’re probably the only atheists. Temptation to withdraw into self, become rigid & dictatorial.

CHAPTER 8:             O’Hair Retires

281: Wm a rabid right-winger
283: early ‘80s, rebellion against M. 1978, Jon Murray’s anti-semitic outburst.
284: 1978 Lincoln’s Birthday Massacre, war with chapters. FFRF founded.

285-7: M’s anti-semitism, including material in AA magazine. M denied she was anti-semitic. Recognized distinction between religion and ethnicity. Sherwin Wine’s Humanistic Judaism—entertained but rejected idea. You can’t be a Jew and an atheist.
287: anti-Israel, gay-bashing.
288: encouraged gays to form own chapters. Racist remarks about blacks, angry with them as Baptists, subservient. Claims to have made remarks to MLK. But judge people as individuals.

290: plans. AA stats.
290-1: 1990 report, Atheists, the Last Minority.
74% male, 96% white, 52% single, 25 % 1 college degree + 22% more than one; 62% own own homes; 32 % under 40, 32 % 40-50, 36 % over 50; 65% middle class. 83 % vote—35% independents, 38% Democrats, 9% Republicans, 9% Libertarians; 12% would vote socialist if viable option .
See also footnote #46, p. 362, 1981 stats.

291: atheists not rationalists, humanists, etc., but atheists. Liberation of mind more important than black, etc. liberation. God-liberation paramount. But pessimistic.

292: society heading into neofascism

295: 1990 crisis. Fight with Truth-Seeker. Jon in charge, a pain in the ass. AA losing court cases & money.
299: disputes over finances, accounting. Charges of corruption.

302: stats, member share of atheists, impact disputed. Leaders admit atheists are stubbornly independent, fractious.

306: 1993 final interview: pessimistic. Sums up self as “Woman, atheist, anarchist”.

The Atheist: Madalyn Murray O’Hair

I read this biography early in 2008. Here are a few of my notes.

LeBeau, Bryan F. The Atheist: Madalyn Murray O’Hair. New York: New York University Press, 2003. Publisher description.

1/3/08: Atheist in a Bunker Reassessing Madalyn MurrayO'Hair by Bill Cooke, Free Inquiry, Volume 23, Number 2.

It's an interesting portrait of O'Hair's dubious leadership style, and helps to explain the creepiness I experienced here [in Washington, DC] two decades ago.

I object only to the self-serving concluding paragraph:

Atheism states only what one does not believe in; the next step is to move forward and determine what one does believe in. Exploring the realms of naturalism and humanism are essential to giving atheism a positive orientation. This is where Paul Kurtzs contribution has been incomparably better grounded than that of Madalyn Murray O'Hair.

Kurtz represents a different constituency, much more polished, upper crust--a technocratic elite.  One of his greatest heroes is the McCarthyite scumbag Sidney Hook, a major player in the suppression of academic freedom.  I don't call this well-grounded at all; it's just differently grounded. 

As for the philosophical foundations, from American Atheist's own declaration of purpose, its philosophy is grounded in materialism.  Kurtz's is in naturalism with a significant influx from the pragmatic tradition.  Kurtz is a professional philosopher, so he has the greater advantage, but in the matter of specific philosophical grounding, what makes his philosophical stance superior?  People can of course call themselves more "positive" all they like--but without a concrete referent for what this positivity applies to--it's just rhetoric.

I never liked the mentality of either the upscale "humanists" or the misanthropic social misfits of American Atheists.  During the aforementioned time period I was a member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which was my favorite organization.

4/21/08: As it happens, I'm reading a biography of Madalyn Murray O'Hair. While she ended up lashing out at the world in a rather unfocused manner, underneath she was a progressive through and through. She was a product of a rigid, repressive, hypocritical society, and her rebelliousness boiled over.  The only time she could thrive to the extent she did was in the '60s and early '70s--before and after was pure hell. She was born in 1919: I don't think even my mother could imagine what that's like.

4/28/08: I finished the biography of Madalyn Murray O'Hair, which left me depressed.  I did not read the book in normal order from beginning to end.  I began with the middle chapters, when she was at the height of her influence and whatever powers she had, i.e. from 1965 to the early-'70s, and then I read the chapter on the decline of her influence.  Then I read from the beginning of the book about her troubled early life up to the aftermath of her landmark Supreme Court victory.  Then I resumed where I left off, where she declines as the Reagan years advance and her son Jon's behavior proves to be as bad or worse, and as we know Madalyn with Jon and Robin come to a grisly end.  But just as depressing is the negative side of Madalyn's personality, for which the repressive society in which she grew up is probably not solely responsible.  To be aggressive and strident is one thing, to be impossible to deal with at all sabotages one's efforts and guarantees an essentially lonely life.  Moreover, her ideas and behavior were sharply internally contradictory, a factor which upped the inevitable tensions of her situation.  Even the progressive side of her political ideas could not advance, as they were neutralized by a universal hostility to humanity--an understandable sentiment up to a point--which she could not rationally manage.