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Archive for August, 2016

Mr. Trump’s deepest, darkest secret revealed!

Posted by nouspraktikon on August 26, 2016

He’s a Centrist!

Sarah Palin just found out, but I figured it out earlier…and psychologist/cartoonist Scott Adams probably had discerned the secret long before anyone else.  Surprisingly, the liberal media covered for Mr. Trump in this particular instance, battening down the kind of tight lid they normally reserve for Ms. Clinton’s emails.

Mr. Trump isn’t a Conservative, he’s a Centrist!

Of course Trump had blurted it out long ago.  In a candid moment (for he has no other kind) he declared, “This isn’t the Conservative party, this is the Republican party, get used to it!”  Few seem to have deduced a confession of Centrism from the statement, which is unsurprising since the prospect is so alarming that most political minds would banish the notion to that untidy abyss where mental monstrosities lurk.   After all, a genuine Centrist would be something new in American politics, a terrifying possibility which, in lieu of getting used to, we had better examine critically. Well, do you know anybody who voluntarily describes themselves as a “Centrist”?  I thought not.  We all want to be a little weird, trending to the left or right to assert our personal quirks.  As individuals we will have nothing to do with Centrism, but collectively….ah, there’s the rub…

Then again, what the heck is a Centrist, that Mr. Trump should be such a creature?  Perhaps the via negativa is our surest line of inquiry into the matter.  Thus we should proceed by a process of elimination, and winnow away the pseudo-centers until we get to the real core, the genuine marrow…or perchance that hole in the political doughnut called Centrism.

First we must dispense with the great national myth of Centrism, a hoary relic which functions, as intended, to make political and historical thought impossible.  Once, so we are told, there was a time in the primeval depths when we were all Centrists.  There were wonderful leaders, men like Lyndon Banes Johnson, who inherited a great country and aimed to keep it that way.  There were eloquent bards like Walter Cronkite who could express the American mind with an unequivocal unanimity, and dub this the “national consensus.”  Then there was some sort of terrible falling out, the bowl of Centrism was broken, and from its shards the warring demons of Left and Right were born.  So we are told.

We are not told that this so-called Centrism was a ploy to marginalize debate on the national level and consolidate a political duopoly.  If such be the case then this mythical “Centrism” can bear little resemblance to Mr. Trump’s politics, which is opening up new questions and exposing old divisions between the political class and the rest of us.  A painful process no doubt, but one which is essential if politics is to have any meaning distinct from administration.

A more recent form of alleged Centrism might be called Rhino-centrism.  Alas,  this is not an amiable obsessing over riparian mammals of the upper Nile, but a political disease.  However like the Blue and White Nile, Rhino-centrism is a confluence of two currents, crypto-liberals in search of power joined with conservatives willing to compromise for the sake of sinecures and security.  Confusingly, the former stream is called “neo-Conservatives” but at the point of convergence they might as well be called Centrists, albeit of the RINO variety.  These people uniformly hate Mr. Trump, so we can only guess that their Centrism is a horned animal pointing in the opposite direction from the elephantine Trump in the living room.

Then there are the chattering classes who call themselves moderates, but who are really just conservatives who are too fearful to broach the salient issues, knowing that doing so would be like touching a naked wire.  Mr. Trump has touched that wire, and we all have seen what happened.  Better safe than sorry!  Yet if these people are Centrists, what is Mr. Trump?

I, Ideologist!

Mr. Trump is a very unsatisfactory person for those of us who deem ourselves thinkers, especially thinkers on the right.  Let’s take two issues, one popular and one fairly esoteric.  One is hard pressed to think what Mr. Trump is going to do in the case of pro-life/pro-choice.  He waffles.  One surmises that he is genuinely of two minds on the issue.  In this regard his personal meditations would reflect the non-consensus of the American people…a kind of Centrism if you will.

At the other extreme is an issue which nobody except libertarians and lawyers care about, eminent domain.  The courts are now saying that the government can seize any land it wishes if the promotion of greater social and economic welfare can be demonstrated by the state.  It doesn’t take too much imagination to see Mr. Trump, with his real estate background and utilitarian mode of thinking, concurring in this doctrine.

As a libertarian I am offended by the doctrine of eminent domain, which asserts that the Earth ultimately belongs to the state.  Not to God, not to communities, not to individuals…to the state.  Qua ideologist I could never permit myself to vote for any magistrate who concurred with the doctrine of eminent domain.  Qua ideologist I would willingly sit this one out.  Indeed, there are good reasons adduced by conservatives to throw the election to Ms. Clinton…either by not voting or by voting for Mr. Johnson.  Perhaps the best argument is that, in expectation of a recession/depression, Ms. Clinton would be the one holding the hot potato.

Eminent domain!  Eminent domain!  Oh, if only everyone could see with my kind of moral clarity!  And yet, one wonders if Mr. Trump, so egregious in theory, would be so really bad in practice.  Could he be as bad as Mr. Obama, who with a flick of the pen is trying to transfer as much land from private to federal domain as possible?  Indeed, the land acquisition policy is beginning to take on almost Shammanic overtones, with the Earth as god and the state as its prophet.  Indeed, if you think that for-profit land use is bad, and surely it can be, wait until the advent of the false prophet…for unalloyed badness!

Likewise with pro-life.  Whatever his ultimate views on human life and sexuality might be, Mr. Trump could hardly make worse Supreme Court appointments than Ms. Clinton.  And while we are at it, what about World War III?  Might that not have something to do with life?  I don’t particularly approve of Mr. Putin, but a bit of “making nice” to the Russians might be preferable to Ms. Clinton’s harrowing neo-Conservative record of “creative destruction” and foreign entanglements.

Yes, as an ideologist I am offended by Mr. Trump’s lack of principle, by his shameless ferreting out of that elusive volunte general, i.e., the general will of the American people.  It smacks of “democracy” in the pejorative sense that Edmund Burke gave to that term, indeed, as a new form Centrism, simultaneously bold and enigmatic.  Yet, as a human being I am persuaded that we can live with Centrism…indeed, that we may not be able to live without it.

 

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Observations on the Christian Libertarian Conference (Aug. 2016, Austin TX), Pt. 2 Afternoon session

Posted by nouspraktikon on August 19, 2016

The Soul of the Entrepreneur

Dr. Victor Claar gave the most upbeat presentation at a conference which was distinguished by a generally upbeat tone.  One had the feeling of being in Sunday school, with plenty of scripture being quoted, and careful analogies drawn between the Biblical narrative and action in modern day society.  Claars’ premise was that entrepreneurial action was an image of God’s creative action.  Good uplifting stuff, albeit it tended to sell short the sense in which human finite reason and senses were only a poor hint at the fiat creation of an omnipotent and omniscient God.

A useful term for this same insight, which Dr. Claar did not employ, was J. R. R. Tolkein’s “sub-creation.”   All human activity, from art to entrepreneurship, is mundane mirroring of God’s creative action.  It struck me that there are actually two levels operative here, the moving about of productive factors within creation, and the imaginative reconstruction of the world with language.  These are different, with the former being closer to God’s creation in substance, while the second seems closer in terms of form.

One objection to any parallelism between entrepreneurship and God’s creative act is the presence of uncertainty in the former.  Theorists of entrepreneurship, such as the Austrian school’s Israel Kirzner, have talked about the entrepreneur as someone who is capable of “seeing around the corner” and discovering a gap in the market, some need or deficiency which has not been hitherto met.  However the entrepreneur cannot magically control the outcome of the enterprise.  This human capacity for being wrong renders the analogy between human action and creation less than perfect.  I mentioned this to Dr. Claar and he seemed to concur with this caveat.

The Plot Thickens: Enter Rene Girard as mimed by David Gornoski

“A Neighbor’s Choice” applied mimetic theory (MT) to the issues of politics and liberty.  Of all the presentations this was the one which came closest to offering a Christian solution to tyranny, and human bondage in general.  Most of the audience was probably unaware of the late Rene Girard’s work on social imitation, the mimetic triangle, and scapegoating.  As one of the conference attendees noted “libertarians scapegoat the state.”  Well, I am not sure that the way libertarians blame the state is congruent with Girard’s “scapegoat” theory, but the comment articulates an important truth.  The “state” is an abstraction which can only become incarnate in human action.  Therefore we must ask ourselves what is the primal human motive which results in the institution of elaborate and tyrannical systems of control.

For Rene Girard, it is the violation of the tenth commandment, Envy, which is at the heart of both social cohesion and conflict.  Imitation is the indispensable mortar for building individual bricks into a social structure, but imitation turns to nihilism as the fires of envy intensify and the continued existence of the imitated other becomes unbearable.  At the root of the problem is the unique quality of human imitation, which, unlike animal imitation is not just a miming of behavior but a imaginative appropriation of the other person’s desires.  This leads to rivalry and ultimately the assassination of the rival so that one can occupy and replace one’s rival’s very selfhood.  The assassination is then speedily mythologized, and turned into a religion to mask the aggression of the new leadership, a strategy which is generally successful in the short term, or at least until the fires of envy once again build up beyond a tolerable limit.

According to Girard, this pattern continued throughout human prehistory until it was unmasked by the passion of Christ.  In the gospel records for the first time ever, the narrative is related from the point of view of the victim.  Ideally, Christ should have been the last victim of mimetic rivalry, but as David Gornoski reminded the audience, the pattern has continued to operate up to the present and provide a rationale for that institution which we call “the state.”  Gornoski reminded the audience that the gospel accounts not only provide a diagnosis of the sinful basis of society, but also a strategy for dealing with mimetic rivalry…to eschew rivalry and usurping of the tyrannical rival’s functions, no matter if the overthrow and replacement be masked as “justice.”

It would seem that with Mr. Gornoski’s presentation we had got to a point during the conference where theory was beginning to give way to practice.  However the “practice” of a Girardian anti-mimesis would be less action than restraint on action, which brings to the foreground the common tendency of anarchism to encourage quietism rather than political activism.

Pico himself was beset by his usual theological scruples, and being a Girardian himself, though perhaps in bad standing, was eager to sound out Mr. Gornoski on the dangers of diverting the passion narrative from soterology to sociology.  Mr. Gornoski replied that he was convinced a sociological perspective on Christ’s victimhood in no way diminished the doctrine of the atonement, and that Girard himself (who became a practicing Catholic) saw no contradiction.  Pico was willing to let the matter stand, although this is a fundamental point which needs to be clarified in Girardian circles.

Conclusion: Political Burlesque and a Resounding Call to Inaction

It was inevitable that, in a Presidential election year, there would have to be some concluding fireworks…and that these would have to be managed so that the dangerous explosives didn’t blow apart the meeting in a satisfying but divisive finale.  This job was delegated to Jason Rink who’s semi-comic “Never a Chump: A Christian Libertarian guide to the 2016 Election” concluded with an appeal for libertarians to vote, not with their feet, but with their couch.  Even Mr. Johnson, the darling of the LP and other mild-mannered reformers, got the cold shoulder on the premise that if you don’t vote you aren’t morally responsible for the inevitable brutality of practical statecraft.  Of course this went double for Mr. Trump and Ms. Clinton.

Wisely, there were no rebuttals due to time constraints, so partisan matches and fireworks were kept from any incendiary conjunction. The enthusiasts of Mr. Johnson just had to grit their teeth and defer to their anarchist betters.  However, just for the record, Pico would like to ask: Are there not crimes of omission rather than commission?

Let me get down to specifics.  After all, Pico has made no secret of the fact that he is sympathetic to the oh-so-terrible Mr. Trump, so let me take Mr. Rink to task on his logic.  With regard to the Republic slate in general, Mr. Rink correctly observes that the Christian Right have served as the useful idiots (a.k.a. “chumps”) for a G.O.P. which has become subservient to neoconservative policies and banking interests.  Rink therefore concludes that now is the time for Christians in general and libertarians in particular to assert their independence from the Republican machine.   Four or eight years ago this would have been a valid premise, and in fact many Evangelicals did desert the G.O.P in 2012, if only due to Mr. Romney’s religion.

However Mr. Rink fails to understand that a G.O.P. under the sway of the Trump movement is no longer the Republican party of pre-2016.  If Trump has his way (and in spite of the obtuse G.O.P. leadership he seems to be getting it) the only continuity between today’s party and the pre-2016 organization will be the name.  If Mr. Rink, and the rest of us, could get beyond labels and pose the question objectively we would ask: Can Christian Libertarians support the Bull Moose Party, or the Populist Party, or whatever moniker you fancy for Trump’s new breed? Indeed, it was a tremendous coup (literally!) for Trump and his people to retain the name and franchise of “Republican” but that’s a whole new animal you see walking around the elephant’s skin.  So we pose the question whether Christians should join fortune at its tide, and be counted among those who will have clout in a possible Trump administration, or not?  I have a hunch that a Trump administration might succeed in “Making America Small Again” which would be an improvement on the present globalist regime.  Of course don’t expect Mr. Trump to be saying any such thing, which would be against both prudence and his own expansive nature, its just that rhetoric and results are often polar opposites.

Still, I suspect that it is Mr. Rink and not Pico who had his hand on the pulse on the conclave’s membership.  The dominant strain in the organization, which is now three years old, seems to be pietistic semi-anarchism of the David Lipscomb variety.  That is a worthy tradition and not be gainsaid, albeit Pico has been tending more towards a theonomic perspective recently.

Most of all, whether we are inclined towards libertarianism or theonomy, it is important to oppose the mainstream Christian Right in its fatal love affair with militarism and American exceptionalism.  To that end, I was glad to see that Dr. Norman Horne, the conference organizer, had learned some hard lessons from his debate with Dr. Al Mohler, President Emeritus of the largest Protestant denomination in America, and an evangelical celebrity.  During this previous encounter Mohler had dismissed “libertarianism” as a distracting ideology which was inherently non-Christian if not anti-Christian.  By his own account, Dr. Horn felt he came off poorly in the debate, as one would only expect of an upstart idealist going to the mat with a seasoned polemicist.

Dr. Horne concluded that in a projected rematch he would be less inclined to mince words and accept Dr. Mohler’s premises at face value.  Rather, he would have recourse to libertarian first principles, which are in fact Christian first principles.  He would like to remind Dr. Mohler that aggression is not endorsed by the gospel and that power corrupts.

Whether there is a reprise of the Horne/Mohler debate, let’s hope that someone is listening.  War drums are beating ever louder, Ms. Clinton is solidly in the pocket of the neocons, and militarists are wrangling for influence with Mr. Trump.  Christians, both committed and nominal, still represent the biggest single demographic in America, and a force for good or evil depending on how they are mobilized.

Let us meditate deeply on what action, or perhaps inaction, we should take in 2016…and may God help us all.

 

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Observations on the Christian Libertarian Conference, (Austin TX, Aug. 1016) Pt. 1, Morning session and main speaker

Posted by nouspraktikon on August 10, 2016

Can Christians be Libertarians?

Pico had the rare privilege of attending the third annual Christians for Liberty Conference, held in Austin Texas on Aug. 6.   There were about a hundred or so Christians and libertarians in attendance (mostly those who were both, but perhaps a few who were neither but curious) which made it lively enough for what is unfortunately still deemed an eccentricity, and drawing people, such as yours truly, from far and yon.  Now this writer, “Pico” if you will, is more of a paleoconservative, or at least a paleolibertarian, and perhaps there were a few of similar persuasion lurking among the crowd.  Undoubtedly this will give my observations a certain piquant sharpness since I fall short of whatever ideological median existed among the participants.  Yet this range of views is the glory of all such libertarian conclaves, such that one can hardly bring any two of the participants together without finding three opinions among them.   If you were to scratch the surface of conviviality, it would have revealed anarchists, minarchists, low-tax liberals, Rothbardian purists, one or two misdirected Randians, LP activists-on-the-make, pissed-off Republicrats, and a vast variety of other species in attendance.  But, characteristic of this fusion of freedom and gospel, there was no rancor among the sub-sects, and the whole thing concluded with a resounding call to spread the complementary messages of political autonomy and spiritual dedication to Christ.

The conference was sponsored by the Christian Libertarian Institute, itself the brainchild of Dr. Norman Horne, who was the chief organizer of the event.  The first speakers were Elise Daniel and Jacqueline Isaacs, who posed the question “Can Christians be Libertarians?.”  While Pico hates the generational monikers which the media have made into mandatory age-casts, for ease of understanding, I will reluctantly describe Ms. Daniel and Ms. Isaacs as so-called “millennials” addressing their peers.  As always there is tragedy and hope.  The tragedy is that young Christians in public universities and starting corporate careers are members of an oppressed minority which is still stigmatized as an oppressing majority.  The hope is that the brightest among the millennials will come to understand that Christianity is not a form of authoritarianism, but an exercise in responsible individualism mandated by God.

On the other hand there is a prejudice in the church which conflates libertarianism with a kind of roll-your-own lifestyle (properly, this would be termed “libertinism”), a view reinforced by the image of the pot-smoking narcissist who cares only for his or her own rights to enjoy the things of this world.   However to decriminalize sinful behavior is not to give it moral sanction, indeed, it is to restore responsibility for the moral order to the teaching and sanctions of the family and the church.  Libertarianism doesn’t teach the “unleashing of desire” promised by the progressives, but rather seeks to end the usurpation of individual responsibility by the state. Rather than an end to all governance, one of the speakers gave an apt summary, “I like my religion top down, and my politics bottom up!”  In the pursuit of that goal, these two bright lights in the rising constellation of Christians for liberty have combined with four of their peers on a project to show how the age old ideal of “liberty in Christ” can speak in a contemporary idiom.  The outcome will be a new perspective entitled Called To Liberty, which answers the question “can Christians be libertarian” through the experience and personal reflections of the six witnesses.  This is a faith-based initiative in both the gospel and the entrepreneurial sense, since at the time of the conference the book was still half way towards being crowd-funded for publication.

A more somber and historical tone was struck by next two speakers Dr. Jamin Hubner and Dr. Mark Cherry.  Hubner called the historical record to witness, and answered the question of whether Christians can be libertarians in the affirmative.  Indeed, Hubner seemed indignant that the question even needed to be posed, since the anti-statist nature of the gospel was less evident in the apologetic tracts of the early theologians than the praxis of the catacombs and the Colosseum.   While Hubner was pointed and direct, Cherry was rather baroque in his philosophical analysis of the theological epochs of the church, illustrating how Christians often got off track by rendering their faith too abstract and universal.  For Cherry, the interesting question was not how libertarians and Christians could propagate their understandings indiscriminately, but how freedom of concrete choices empowered Christian individuals and families to live out of the will of God in the face of clear alternatives.

Since, as common sense and Austrian economics both teach, there is no such thing as equality in the realm of values, anyone attending a conference on libertarianism and Christianity must eventually ask which is the head and which is the tail, the Christian part or the freedom part.  There were many pious statements implying that the joint endeavor would lead Christians to become more libertarian and libertarians to become more Christian.  Yet without further clarification the deadly hint of dual allegiance inevitably starts to debilitate the methods and motives of all hyphenated movements.  So it was with great relief that Pico and others heard Ms. Daniel affirm that the most important value was Christian faith, besides which infinite value no secular ideal can compare.

The Keynote Speaker: Dr. Robert Murphy

The featured Dr. Murphy was not a particular “draw” for Pico, since that latter had some vague reservations about the author of the “Contra-Krugman” blog.  Many Austrian economists have a smart-Alec approach to lecturing.  Knowing (and I feel they are correct in this assumption) that they are among the most intelligent human beings on the planet, they are keen to confirm the general public in the same conviction.  Perhaps some decades-old encounter with Dr. Murphy had filled me with trepidation about the speaker.  But as he began his talk it became clear  that, like Pico, Dr. Murphy had at some point in his personal sojourn become “a new creature in Christ” and I warmed to him.  Yes, he was every bit as witty and contentious as he had ever been, but, now bearing the mark of a servant, one could see that there was more than ego involved.

Moreover, Dr. Murphy’s topic was neither libertarianism nor Christianity per se but, surprisingly, apologetics.  Granted that his title “Is God a tyrant?” would have hinted broadly at apologetics in any session where the themes were less political and more theological.  The thesis was indeed a tour de force, and while Dr. Murphy (with his new found modesty) demurred from making any such claim, I will go ahead and call this an entirely new and revolutionary kind of apologetics.  How so?

Keeping in mind that Dr. Murphy did not make any such claim, it seems to Pico that he was hinting at a “third way” within apologetics.  If the first way is Classical apologetics (associated with Aristotle) and is evidence based, and the second way is Prepositional (associated with Paul, Anselm, and certain reformed thinkers) “believe that you may know” then Dr. Murphy’s take on the matter seems different from either. I’m not sure whether to call it Economic, or Judicial apologetics, or something else, but the take-away is that the thought of Murry Rothbard (a Jewish “pagan”) takes on a contemporary significance analogous to the influence of Aristotle on scholastic apologetics.

Rothbardians, following Locke, understand property as originating in the creation of goods through the mixing of labor with the materials provided by nature.  Once these goods have been created, they are owned absolutely by their creator.  He or she has the right to keep, destroy, or give away the created good voluntarily.  Conversely, nobody else has a right to possess, occupy, or enjoy the good owned by the owner (who is either the creator or a successor to the original creator at some subsequent degree of gifting and/or purchase).  As Murphy notes, this doctrine leads to any number of potential scenarios which normal people find morally uncomfortable.  A typical illustration will involve the owner expelling from his or her property a trespasser who is certain to die in the hostile environment surrounding the owner’s place of business or habitation. However these dire consequences are not logical paradoxes, they follow from logical principles whether or not people feel emotionally or morally comfortable with the outcome.

When we consider God as the first laborer to whom all artifactual creaton by humans is analogous, then we can understand the parallel between the libertarian defense of property rights and God’s sovereignty over creation.  God owns everything, and therefore has a right to dispose of His property as he sees fit.  We are his property and in no position to claim any rights which does not acknowledge the prior claims of God on everything we are and own.

I find this kind of reasoning compelling, even though, or because, it gives one a sobering realization of how wrong it is to claim autonomy in the face of one’s Creator.  There is a complementarity here, where the heteronomy of the creature is both contrasted to, and supported by, that same creature’s legal status as an autonomous person within civil society.  It is also remarkably in accordance with scripture once we consider the gospel as part of an integral covenant rooted in the so-called Old Testament.  Basically, Israel is a community of freeholders, yet they do not truly hold freely, but by the grace of God.

In summary, God is not a tyrant because he made the people over whom he allegedly tyrannizes.  Human tyrants are what they are because they have not only usurped Christ.s crown rights, but they have intruded into the lives and properties of their fellow human beings.  If they had made themselves and us, human tyrants would be in better shape to assert their claims, but fortunately we do not owe them our existence…as we do to God.

And now for something completely different

Dr. Murphy concluded his talk on an ominous note, echoing Paul’s observation that we battle not against flesh, but against powers and dominions, he cautioned against optimism based on a naive belief in rational persuasion of  the masses.  He noted that behind support for statism lurks something more than bad thinking or even vested interest, rather there are strong spiritual forces arrayed against freedom.  Pico entirely concurs, and feels that libertarians as a whole are a rather Quixotic bunch.  Leaving the ultimately supernatural opposition aside, there are many factors even in mundane existence which libertarians generally prefer to ignore, such as who precisely is doing what to whom, and if this involves money or other levers to power.  It would seem that when God divided up political intelligence the right got principles and the left got strategy, and one wonders if it is too late in the day for the former to learn any new tricks, dirty or otherwise.

Of course there is always the flip side, as illustrated by those self-professed pragmatic “libertarians” whom Murray Rothbard despised but who arguably have a better grasp on reality than the utopians.  As if on cue, Dr. Murphy’s talk was followed by Lauren Daugherty’s “Toward a Libertarian Foreign Policy” which seemed like an attempt to synthesize moral and economic liberalism with certain aspects of neoconservative doctrine.  Knowing that the room was peppered with anarchists and pacifists, it took visible courage on Ms. Daugherty’s part to advocate a rather muscular retention of pax Americana, albeit one which clearly prioritized cultural propaganda and sea power in preference to boots sinking into quagmires.  Pico always enjoys it when a solitary individual stands her ground in the face of a crowd, and sure enough, the young lady prevailed, while the crowd, generally speaking, “blinked.”  To paraphrase Star Wars’ Senator Palpitine, many will be watching Ms. Daugherty’s career with great interest, and hopefully she will not succumb to the dark side of the force.

 

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Surrealism, the backdoor between Marxism and the Occult: The case of Frida Kahlo

Posted by nouspraktikon on August 2, 2016

Pictures at an exhibition:  Beyond political correctness to Marxist memorial

The press release from the Harn Museum of Art (an institution associated with the University of Florida) read as follows,

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) known for her self-portrait paintings, was among the most photographed women of her generation.  In addition to the photographic works of Kahlo, the exhibition will include a PBS film “The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo,” two works (a drawing and a painting) by Kahlo and ancient and contemporary Mexican ceramics and sculpture from a local collector and the Harn’s collection.

What the press release did not mention, but which is sufficiently illustrated by the documentary film, is that Kahlo was a life long leftist who’s Marxism became increasingly enthusiastic over the course of her tumultuous and troubled life.  None the less, the tone of the film and the exhibition are laudatory, not critical, and one has to wonder why PBS and the Harn are now shamelessly promoting the worship of  Marxist icons?  Kahlo’s passion for her husband Diego Rivera (1886-1957), who raised the Mexican mural genre to the status of political art, did not preclude an adulterous interlude with exiled Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky.  Neither did any lingering sentiment for Trotsky prevent Kahlo from memorializing his murderer, Joseph Stalin, with art and adulation.

Although the information set forth is intended to portray Kahlo sympathetically, the narratives and pictures are sufficiently candid to tell a different story from that intended by their politically correct sponsors.  These sponsors seem to be relying on the historical ignorance of the general public to omit the context in which Kahlo and her associates’ life and work transpired.  For example, one is not supposed to recollect that Christianity in the Mexico of the mid-twentieth century had been suppressed with a vehemence and violence that aspired to emulate conditions in the Soviet Union itself.  However, if we are able to restore this context, then the exhibition and film do become vastly educational, albeit not in the sense that its sponsors intended.

Surrealism, art, and agitation

From the first it needs to be kept in mind that Kahlo was never an isolated artist, but rather part of that larger movement which called itself “Surrealism.”  As an emigre from France to Mexico, Kahlo was a major force in the regional propagation of the movement, but not its leading international star.  Although historians classify surrealism as an artistic movement, its originators deemed it a revolutionary philosophy, one which was capable of altering human perception to such a degree that it would facilitate social and cultural transformation.  The mastermind of this movement was Andre Breton(1896-1966).  Breton was not only a mentor of Kahlo but a social acquaintance, the PBS documentary even mentioning an alleged lesbian relationship between Kahlo and Breton’s wife.  Be that as it may, Breton’s theory found a natural conduit to the masses in the work of Kahlo and other disciples.

Though Breton was a Marxist, his artistic theory was far to the “left” of mainstream Marxist aesthetics of the time, which was trying to promote the stodgy doctrine of Soviet Realism which reduced all art to a kind of photography of sense impressions.  Like kindred theories which were starting to make waves in the ’20s and ’30s, notably the Frankfort School’s critical theory and Antonio Gramci’s cultural Marxism, the Surrealists felt that the bourgeois  mind could not simply be chopped off from the shoulders of material reality.   Rather, it required transformation, and the Surrealists felt that they, being revolutionary geniuses, had devised just the right formula to bring about the desired result.

The essence of the theory was that the human mind had been confined by logic to conform to an artificial matrix of perception.  A particular kind kind of logic, explained by Aristotle but thought to be natural and universal, was responsible for the way human beings, at least in the West, categorized the world given by the senses.   Thus normally, the sensory manifold was interpreted as evidence of discrete entities (such as rational persons) their qualities (such as owning their bodies and property) and relationships (such as the binary distinction between justice/injustice). Contrary to this “common sense” doctrine, the Surrealists felt that if bourgeois civilization were to be overthrown, these categories needed to be neutralized and overcome.  The avenue by which the human mind was most liable to reconditioned away from what had previously been defined as “sanity” and “reality” was art, especially graphic and photographic recombination and mutation of common scenes.

Whereas the Soviet Realist wished to reduce all perception to a logic of despiritualized bodies interacting in time and space, the Surrealist wished to abolish logic completely, and reduce the mind to a series of kaleidoscope impressions, devoid of any supervening criteria of judgement of as to whether the sensations were illusory or genuine.  In contrast to the doctrinaire Realists, the Surrealists wished to retain psychology at the heart of their world-view.  This was tremendously appealing to a varied assortment of intellectuals and artists who’s narcissistic tendencies made them unlikely candidates for the kind of impersonal doctrine being dished out to rank-and-file Communists.  Frieda Kahlo, who’s self-constructed image appears repeatedly in the exhibition, is clearly an instance of such a comrade-narcissist.

Frieda Kahlo, from Shamanism to Stalinism

In the minds of Breton’s European contemporaries, Surrealism’s psychologization of perception was expected to destroy bourgeois idealism, striping the mind of reasonable objections to the assault of the strong material forces which were destined overwhelm civilization.  These forces, industrial, military, economic, and demographic were all material in their foundation.  Therefore critics of Communism who have ventured to apply terms such as “demonic” and even “Satanic” to the movement have been accused of hyperbolic expression, if not outright paranoia.  After all, an atheist, whatever her or his faults, is an unlikely candidate for demon-worship.

However, would not the Surrealist movement, in striping the mind of rationality, leave it prey to not just brute natural forces,  but also to preternatural entities, if indeed the latter have any objective reality?  In the absence of characters such as Frieda Kahlo, such a hypothesis would be purely conjectural.  However we can see in her art the portrayal of a parallel world which seems to have more in common with the shammanic visions portrayed by Carlos Castennada than the pop leftist Parisian cafes which Frieda Kahlo despised.  Whatever their differences in world-view both the sorcerer and the commissar seek to attain unlimited power without the burdens of ethical constraint, and it is no accident that a disciple of Andre Breton was able to break down the partition between two of hell’s antechambers.

Does this mean that there was no value to the art of the surrealists or to the teaching of Frieda Kahlo?  Not necessarily, however the ultimate value of any work lies in to whom that work has been consecrated.  Not to consecrate at all, out of human pride, is to assume a godless universe and thus to consecrate one’s work to demons, should they happen to exist, by default.  The first assumption was implicit in the ideology of the Realists while the latter was worked out in the practice of the Surrealists.  Indeed it may be that, as Frieda Kahlo rightfully insisted, there is more to art than painting endless stereotypes of boring floral arrangements, but hopefully we can become creative without denying the primal Creator and consequently taking the full credit for our own spiritual and physical mutations.  Salvador Dali, the archenemy of Andre Breton, was as creative as any of the leftist cult’s artists, but he possessed two qualities which tend to escape armchair revolutionaries, devotion to God and a sense of humor.

Some people will come away from the Frieda Kahlo exhibition in awed reverence, others, more discerning, will feel vaguely nauseated.  Nobody is likely to leave laughing.

 

 

[NB God willing the series on Christian Anthropology will be extended in the near future, however it was thought expedient to interrupt with a few out of series posts…thanks as always to my patient readers]

 

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