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  • Mary McCarthy and McCarthyism: A Review of “The Group”

    Posted on April 9th, 2018 Helian No comments

    Not many people remember Mary McCarthy anymore, but she was a household name among the literati back in the 50’s and 60’s, as both a novelist and a political activist.  I’d never read any of her work, but noticed in an old review of her novel The Group that she was a Vassar grad.  I used to date a Vassar girl, as my alma mater was West Point, about 30 miles down the Hudson from Poughkeepsie, and the novel was about Vassar girls, so for no more substantial reason than that, I decided to have a look.  It was a good decision.  Given what I look for in novels, The Group was one of the best I’ve ever read.

    When it comes to literature, I agree with my favorite author, Stendhal.  He said that novels were artifacts of the time in which they were written, and were meant to appeal to the tastes of people who lived in those times.  I also agree with George Orwell, who held that novels are a way of expressing truths that the limitations of language make it difficult to express in any other way.  From both points of view, I found The Group superb.  It is full of the impressions left in the mind of a very intelligent woman by the life going on around her, in this case, in the 30’s, following her graduation from Vassar in 1933, told from the point of view of a “group” of her fellow graduates.  It is a perfect time capsule.

    What’s in the capsule?  Well, to begin, I found an artifact of the contemporary “progressives'” embrace of eugenics before Hitler ruined everything, as exemplified by the father of Kay Strong, one of “the group.”

    Dad, like all modern doctors, believed in birth control and was for sterilizing criminals and the unfit.

    How about a morality inversion?  Kay’s dad had sent her a check on the occasion of her marriage to a playwright by the name of Harald Peterson and she agreed with him that,

    It was a declaration of faith… And she and Harald did not intend to betray that faith by breeding children(!, ed.), when Harald had his name to make in the theatre.

    Which, of course, begs the question of why it is that anyone is predisposed to “make a name” for himself.  My readers should know the answer to that question.  I note in passing that McCarthy’s first husband was also named Harald.  Another thing documented in the novel is the fact that, at least for some, the sexual revolution happened a long time before the pill was ever heard of.  There are detailed descriptions of the prophylactic techniques of the day, including the diaphragm, sort of a trap door in the way of hopeful sperm that was carefully fitted to cover the opening of the cervix by a gynecologist.  This was used in tandem with the douchebag, containing a spermicidal concoction to finish off the more recalcitrant searchers for the holy grail.  According to the novel, women who were open to sexual adventures would announce the fact by hanging these on the back of their bathroom door.

    Perhaps the most useful insight one can glean from The Group is the prevalence and matter-of-fact acceptance of Communists in the 30’s.  Many magazines, some of which are still around today, were open advocates of Communism in those days.  Kay’s classmate, Libby MacAusland, an aspiring book reviewer, noticed this in the case of two titles still familiar today.  As she put it:

    At the Nation and the New Republic they said too that you had to run a gauntlet of Communists before getting in to see the book editor – all sorts of strange characters, tattooed sailors right off the docks and longshoremen and tramps and bearded cranks from the Village cafeterias, none of them having had a bath for weeks.

    Most of the action takes place in New York, and playwrights there noticed the same phenomenon.  For example, Kay’s playwright husband, Harald,

    …had been directing a play for a left-wing group downtown.  It was one of those profit-sharing things, co-operatives, but run really by Communists behind the scenes, as Harald found out in due course.  The play was about labor, and the audiences were mostly theatre parties got up by the trade unions.

    Another of the Vassar classmates, Polly Andrews, became the lover of Gus LeRoy, a book reviewer for one of the big New York Publishers.  He is described as a humdrum man whose embrace of Communism was described as something entirely commonplace and unremarkable:

    His liking for name brands was what had sold him on Communism years ago, when he graduated from Brown spank into the depression.  (George Bernard) Shaw had already converted him to socialism, but if you were going to be a socialist, his roommate argued, you ought to give your business to the biggest and best firm producing socialism, i.e., the Soviet Union.  So Gus switched to Communism, but only after he had gone to see for himself.  He and his roommate made a tour of the Soviet Union the summer after college and they were impresse3d by the dams and power plants and the collective farms and the Intourist girl Guide.  After that, Norman Thomas (longtime leader of the Socialist Party in the U.S., ed.) seemed pretty ineffectual.

    Polly’s father, who comes to live with her after divorcing his wife, preferred another flavor of Communism:

    And unlike the village cure in France, who had required him to take instruction before being “received,” the Trotskyites, apparently, had accepted him as he was.  He never understood the “dialectic” and was lax in attendance at meetings, but he made up for this by the zeal with which, wearing a red necktie and an ancient pair of spats, he sold the Socialist Appeal on the street outside Stalinist rallies.

    Polly’s dad has some choice words for the New York Times’ prize, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist in Moscow.  Chagrined at the refusal of his daughter’s Aunt Julia to include a small behest to the Trotskyists in her will he remarks:

    But Julia has been convinced by what she reads in the papers that we Trotskyites are counter-revolutionary agents bent on destroying the Soviet Union.  Walter Duranty and those fellows, you know, have made her believe in the trials (the Great Purge Trials of the old Bolsheviks, ed.).  If what they write wasn’t true, she says, it wouldn’t be in the New York Times, would it?

    In short, what the novel is documenting here is the fact that, among the “woke” elements in the population back in the 30’s, Communism was a commonplace.  Look at the entertainment and literary magazines of the day, and you’ll see that it was just as prevalent in Hollywood as it was in New York.  Which brings us back to the title of this post.  I refer, of course, to McCarthyism.

    McCarthyism lays fair claim to being the next to the biggest media scam of the 20th century, taking second place only to the Watergate coup d’état.  The news media were nearly as firmly in the grip of the ideological Left in Joe McCarthy’s day as they are now, and those who controlled the message were perfectly well aware that many of their friends and ideological soulmates had been party members or fellow travelers in the 30’s.  Once it became obvious that Walter Duranty and his pals had been purveying some of the most egregious “fake news” ever heard of, and the Communists and their collaborators actually had the blood of tens of millions on their hands, all these would be saviors of the proletariat were in a precarious position.  Then tail gunner Joe began seriously rocking the boat, “kicking ass and taking names,” as we used to say in the Army.  Something had to be done.  The result was the media-contrived charade we now know as McCarthyism.  Instead of feeling sympathy for the tens of millions of voiceless victims of Communism lying in mass graves starved and tortured to death or with bullet holes in their skulls, the American people were successfully bamboozled into wringing their hands over blighted careers of those who had gleefully collaborated in their murder.  McCarthy was cast in the role of one of the media’s greatest villains, an evil witch hunter.  The fact that the witches were actually there, and in great abundance, didn’t seem to matter.

    If you think Mary McCarthy was some right wing zealot who was trying to exonerate tail gunner Joe when The Group was published in 1954, guess again.  Indeed, as Alex might have said in A Clockwork Orange, “now comes the weepy part of the story, oh my brothers (and sisters).”  Mary McCarthy was actually a lesser, albeit smarter, version of Jane Fonda.  That’s right.  She, too, traveled to North Vietnam as the war was raging in the south and openly collaborated with the enemy.  She was a leftist activist of the first water.

    What can I say?  I still loved the book.  As it happens, not everyone agreed with me.  Stanley Kauffmann, a noted critic back in the day, wrote a scathing review of The Group when it was republished in 1964.  Kauffmann, too, was a leftist, and complained that McCarthy had been insufficiently zealous in portraying the oppression and victimization of his pet identity groups.  Beyond that, however, he criticized the disconnected story line and McCarthy’s lack of “style.”  To tell the truth, I really don’t know what the critics mean when they speak of “style,” and I could care less about it.  It appears my favorite Stendhal was also lacking in “style.”  It’s a matter of complete indifference to me.  What I look for in novels are such things as the accurate portrayal of the times in which they were written, insight into human nature, and bits that teach me a little bit something about my own quirks and follies.  I like Stendhal, Sinclair Lewis, Somerset Maugham, and Kafka (because he’s so good at amplifying my worst nightmares).  I don’t like Dickens, I don’t like Joyce, and I don’t like Proust.  That’s not to say they aren’t great authors.  I don’t doubt that they are, because people whose opinions I respect have found much to like in them.  I just didn’t find what I like.  I did find it in The Group.  Have a look and see if you find it, too.  Don’t miss the bits about “advanced” methods of child rearing back in the 30’s.  I suspect they would make any modern pediatrician’s hair stand on end.  Meanwhile, I’ll be checking out some of McCarthy’s other stuff.

  • Privilege and Morality

    Posted on May 25th, 2014 Helian 2 comments

    A Princeton freshman named Tal Fortgang recently made quite a stir with an essay on privilege.  Entitled Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege, it described his encounters with racism and sexism rationalized by the assumption that one is privileged simply by virtue of being white and male.  In his words,

    There is a phrase that floats around college campuses, Princeton being no exception, that threatens to strike down opinions without regard for their merits, but rather solely on the basis of the person that voiced them. “Check your privilege,” the saying goes, and I have been reprimanded by it several times this year…  “Check your privilege,” they tell me in a command that teeters between an imposition to actually explore how I got where I am, and a reminder that I ought to feel personally apologetic because white males seem to pull most of the strings in the world.

    As it happens, Fortgang is Jewish, and his ancestors were victims, not only of the Nazis, but of Stalin and several of the other horrific if lesser known manifestations of anti-Semitism in 20th century Europe.  His grandfather and grandmother managed to survive the concentration camps of Stalin and Hitler, respectively, and emigrate to the U.S.  Again quoting Fortgang,

    Perhaps my privilege is that those two resilient individuals came to America with no money and no English, obtained citizenship, learned the language and met each other; that my grandfather started a humble wicker basket business with nothing but long hours, an idea, and an iron will—to paraphrase the man I never met: “I escaped Hitler. Some business troubles are going to ruin me?” Maybe my privilege is that they worked hard enough to raise four children, and to send them to Jewish day school and eventually City College.

    I a word, there are some rather obvious objections to the practice of applying crude metrics of “privilege” based on race and gender to Fortgang or anyone else, for that matter.  When pressed on these difficulties, those who favor the “check your privilege” meme typically throw out a smokescreen in the form of a complex calculus for determining “genuine privilege.”  For example, in a piece at The Wire entitled What the Origin of ‘Check Your Privilege’ Tells Us About Today’s Privilege Debates, author Arit John notes that it was,

    Peggy MacIntosh, a former women’s studies scholar whose 1988 paper on white privilege and male privilege took “privilege” mainstream.

    and that MacIntosh’s take was actually quite nuanced:

    What MacIntosh classifies as a privilege goes deeper and more specific than most online commentators. There’s older or younger sibling privilege, body type privilege, as well as privileges based on “your athletic abilities, or your relationship to written and spoken words, or your parents’ places of origin, or your parents’ relationship to education and to English, or what is projected onto your religious or ethnic background,” she says. Men, even straight, white, cis gender men,  are disadvantaged by the pressure to be tougher than they might be.

    The key is acknowledging everyone’s advantages and disadvantages, which is why Fortgang is both very wrong and (kind of) right: those telling him to check his privilege have privileges too, and are likely competing in the privilege Olympics. At the same time, it wouldn’t hurt him to check his privilege.

    Which brings us to the point of this post.  Our species isn’t good at nuance.  The “privilege” debate will and must take place in a morally charged context.  It is not possible to sanitize the discussion by scrubbing it free of moral emotions.  That is one of the many reasons why it is so important to understand what morality is and why it exists.  It does not exist as a transcendental entity that happened to pop into existence with the big bang, nor does it exist because the Big Man upstairs wants it that way.  It exists because it evolved.  It evolved because at a certain time in a certain environment unlike the one we live in today, individuals with the innate behavioral traits that give rise to what we generalize as “morality” happened to be more likely to survive and procreate.  That is the only reason for its existence.  Furthermore, human moral behavior is dual.  It is our nature to view others in terms of ingroups and outgroups.  That dual nature is not optional.  It is all-pervasive, and artifacts of its existence can easily be found be glancing at any of the myriads of Internet comment threads relevant to privilege or any other controversial topic.

    The above insights have certain implications concerning the matter of privilege.  It is certainly not out of the question that, in general, it is to an individual’s advantage to be male and white.  However, as pointed out by Ms. MacIntosh, there are countless other ways in which one individual may be privileged over another in modern society.  As a result, it is hardly out of the question for a person of color or a female to be more privileged than a white or a male.  Given the nature of human morality, however, that’s almost never how the question of privilege is actually perceived.  As pointed out by Jonathan Haidt in his The Righteous Mind, we are a highly self-righteous species.  It is our nature to rationalize why we are”good” and those who oppose us are “bad,” and not vice versa.  Furthermore, we tend to lump the “good” and the “bad” together into ingroups and outgroups.  That, in turn, is the genesis of sexism, racism, and all the other manifestations of “othering.”

    It would seem then, that we are faced with a dilemma.  Privilege exists.  It is probable that there are privileges associated with being white, and with being male, and certainly, as Thomas Picketty just pointed out for the umpteenth time in his “Capital in the 21st Century,” with being wealthy.  However, insisting that the playing field be leveled can lead and often has led in the past to racism, sexism, and class hatred.  The examples of Nazism and Communism have recently provided us with experimental data on the effectiveness of racism and class hatred in eliminating privilege.  Fortunately, I know of no manifestations of sexism that have been quite that extreme.

    What “should” we do under the circumstances?  There is no objective answer to that question.  At best I can acquaint you with my personal whims.  In general, I am uncomfortable with what I refer to as “morality inversions.”  A “morality inversion” occurs when our moral emotions prompt us to do things that are a negation of the reasons for the existence of moral emotions themselves.  For example, they might be actions that reduce rather than enhance our chances of survival.  Giving up a privilege without compensation is an instance of such an action.  Furthermore, I object to the irrational assumption by the habitually sanctimonious and the pathologically pious among us that their moral emotions apply to me.  When the implication of those moral emotions is that I am evil because of my race or sex, then, like Tal Fortgang, my inclination is to fight back.

    On the other hand, I take a broad view of “compensation.”  For example, “compensation” can take the form of being able to live in a society that is peaceful and harmonious because of the general perception that the playing field is level and the distribution of the necessities and luxuries of life is fair.  Nazism and Communism aren’t the only ways of dealing with privilege.  I now enjoy many advantages my ancestors didn’t share acquired through processes that were a good deal less drastic, even though they required the sacrifice of privilege by, for example, hereditary nobilities.

    However, like Mr. Fortgang, I reject the notion that I owe anyone special favors or reparations based on my race.  In that case, the probability of “compensation” in any form would be essentially zero.  Other than whites, I know of no other race or ethnic group that has ever sacrificed its “privileges” in a similar fashion.  Millions of whites have been enslaved by Mongols, Turks, and Arabs, not to mention other whites, over periods lasting many centuries.  The last I heard, none of those whose ancestors inflicted slavery on my race has offered to sacrifice any of its “privileges” by way of compensation.  I would be embarrassed and ashamed to ask for such reparations.  I am satisfied with equality before the law.

    Beyond that, I don’t insist that the dismantling of certain privileges can never be to our collective advantage.  I merely suggest that, if dismantle we must, it be done in the light of a thorough understanding of the origins and nature of human morality, lest our moral emotions once again blow up in our faces.

  • Antediluvian Feminism

    Posted on November 25th, 2013 Helian No comments

    While catching up on my back issues of The Monthly Magazine, I ran across an interesting letter to the editor by one “P. W.” in the April 1801 issue.  (It’s on page 220 in case you happen to have a copy lying around the house.)  Many women probably had the same idea long before him, but it’s the earliest piece by a man I’ve ever run across proposing equal pay for equal work.  Some excerpts:

    Sir, the propriety of giving women the same pay as men, for acting with equal success in the same station, has long been so forcibly impressed upon my mind, that I cannot resist my inclination to give you the reasons for the opinion I have formed on the subject…

    First, it is obvious that the absurdity of custom can never overthrow or diminish the authority of the immutable law of justice, which directs that women should receive equal rewards with men, for the same services equally performed.

    Second, the sound policy of calling out the abilities of every member of the community, for the benefit of the whole, by the stimulus of an adequate reward, is a principle that should be extended to both sexes; a change that would improve the female character, and convert her present insignificancy into usefulness.  The stage, the fine arts, and literary composition are the principle departments in which an equality of honour and profits are to be obtained by the competitors of either sex…

    Third, humanity unites with policy, in enforcing the advantage of providing resources for women of all ranks, whereby the may gain an honourable support, when deprived of the customary protection of male relatives…

    The interests of morality the abolition of the absurd and unjust depreciation of female talent, as it certainly operates as a check to the exertions of women, and tends to multiply the herd of those unhappy frail-ones, who fall a prey to seduction; and who, in their turn, become seducers, and inveigle our sons, our fathers, and our husbands, into the paths of destruction.

    It took a while, but the shade of P. W. must have smiled when President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law in 1963.

    As those who click on the link above will see, The Monthly Magazine was published in London from 1796 to 1843.  Among other things, it published the earliest fiction of Charles Dickens.

    Equal Pay