The Clare Spark Blog

March 18, 2013

Babel vs. Sinai

Sinai desert sunrise over Red Sea

Sinai desert sunrise over Red Sea

This is the second of two blogs on the awful effects of collectivist propaganda, including Obama’s deployment of “the rhetoric of the political family.” See

My son-in-law Steve Chocron, after discussing with me what Jews and Christians have in common (i.e. “western humanistic values” as opposed to David Nirenberg’s fixation on “anti-Judaism” as the corrupt core of “the West), came up with the contrast of Babel (or Babylon) versus Sinai:

Babel is collectivist and its language is muddied and muddled even as it promotes “politically correct speech,” while Sinai’s speech is clear, if subject to increased precision over time.

Babel promotes “victimology,” while Sinai promotes individual responsibility and the development of free will.

Where would Freud fit into this scheme? Some determinists, misappropriating “Freud,” would seize on repression, oppression, and bad families as excuses for anti-social behavior (including sadism and masochism), while the residents of Sinai, in the spirit of the true Freud, would probe the darkness in their minds and bodies, would demand that individuals take a complete family history, then do what is necessary to comprehend both family and social sources of wounds, anxieties, and malfeasance, but then would make the effort to correct or sublimate those impulses (rage, hypersexuality, submitting to illegitimate authority whether that be an abusive state or an abusive sibling or parent). Such efforts constitute a form of atonement and are life-long tasks that may never be completed or fully comprehended. They do not resemble the “adjustment” advised by ego psychologists, but rather distinguish between forms of activism, eschewing utopianism, while embracing the necessary and possible. (On Nirenberg’s indictment of “the West as corrupt to the core, see On free-will vs. determinism, focused on Melville and Moby-Dick see

What is sublimation? Freud advised instinctual renunciation to protect precious relationships, while advocating sublimation: Using repressed rage or Eros as energy for sports, creativity in any medium, excelling in an intellectual or artisanal skill, participating in those political movements that honor individuality and independence. Above all, learning about the body, about preventive medicine (impossible without study of nutrition, hygiene, anatomy, and knowledge of the natural world; about child development, and raising children to maximize their own gifts and readiness for participation in the larger world outside the family).

Brueghel the Elder Tower of Babel

Brueghel the Elder Tower of Babel

March 18, 2012

History as trauma (2), Rosebud version

In response to my hint on Facebook that Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, who recently went on a rampage killing 16 Afghanistani civilians,  might be suffering from a mental disorder, X wrote: “The only thing new here is the growth of a professional class of social leeches who use all human discomfort as a niche for some absurdly over-credentialed “helping” professional as a “grief counselor” or PTSD expert, all of whom are in full retreat from American values that have stood us in good stead for 240 years and pushing us towards some kind of Euro Social Justice oblivion. The “Say a Prayer for Peace” commercials make me want to hurl as the vet is coached to say he would have committed suicide without the counseling of some leech or other we should send money to support.

[“X” cont.] If I was in command of a military force today, and a Sgt Bale popped up, I’d make sure some “tragedy” or other took place before he got in the hands of the touchy, feely, lawyered up creeps who are infesting our nation and preserving and supporting the lives of now millions of marginal people who could actually be making a contribution to a better America.”[end X message.]

[Clare:] Clearly, much more needs to be said about the current state of medicine with respect to PTSD and other forms of disabling responses to traumas. This blog will comment further on the material introduced here: I have finished reading Robert Scaer MD’s book, The Body Bears the Burden: Trauma, Dissociation, and Disease (Routledge, 2007), and now can argue for its importance, especially in the light of Obamacare and primary care medicine in general.

Who won’t like this book? Government officials invested in the Affordable Care Act, insurance companies, trial lawyers, many feminists, and those who, out of life experience or conviction, disregard any type of medicine that relies solely upon a materialist (empirical) study of the brain, the endocrine system, and the mind-body continuum.  For what Scaer’s book delivers is a comprehensive survey of the field of neurophysiology and the pathologies that stem from trauma, especially those that result from a failure of mother-child attunement and bonding, though he does mention the many traumas that his patients have experienced, including natural disasters, automobile accidents, military combat, assaults, child abuse, incest, rape (including date rape) and more. But when mothers experience post-partum depression, for instance, Scaer considers such a calamity to be a form of child abuse that damages the child for life, including the proclivity for violent crime or any other antisocial activity. He returns to the infant and pain so frequently that one wonders if this frequently reiterated factor is not a part of his personal biography. (Examples: fetuses feel pain, circumcision must be accompanied by anesthetic, new born baby should be put on the mother’s breast immediately.)

I am convinced that Scaer’s work and that of other neurologists who have produced work since the last half of the 20th century are correct in refining the field of neurology and psychiatry, especially in overthrowing the Cartesian dualism of Mind as separate from Body, and in defending the idea of the unconscious, even though it is not Freud’s unconscious. Moreover, many practitioners, including students of healing in other cultures, have developed treatments that release the original frozen trauma, so that the patient does not experience subsequent physical and mental disorders such as fibromyalgia and panic attacks. These are all listed by Scaer, and evaluated by him as a scientist. His rather tentative and humble book is not about selling a fast track to cure; nor is he in agreement with DSM-IV in their limited understanding of trauma.

This is why I consider Scaer’s book to be a revolution in patient care, but one that makes recommendations that are not yet capable of being broadly realized, for HMO’s do not support long term mental health services, nor do primary care physicians have the time to take lengthy family histories. I have written elsewhere about panic attacks, in which it is suggested that each of us make a list of those terrifying, helpless-making moments in our past that could have contributed to the separation anxiety that is called panic or other names. See If there is something amiss with mother-infant bonding, the patient must resort to inferences about the relations between mother and child, for mother’s mood after birth cannot be directly recalled, although mother’s intent on escaping domesticity offers hints.

Even to read Scaer’s book may be a form of preventive medicine. Return to the Affordable Care Act. For those who wrote the legislation, preventive medicine entails screening for cancer, such as mammograms and colonoscopies.  They do not mention lifestyle choices and/or mental health services that can be shown either to lead to optimum functioning or, conversely, to unnecessary and persistent pain and suffering, not to speak of early death.

Poster Coming Home

Why do I, as feminist and mother of one son and two daughters and grandmother to two grandsons and five granddaughters, dwell on the mother-infant attachment? I am convinced that many men are determined to control women because of earlier experience with mothers who were either (subtly?) rejecting or clinging to their sons, to the exclusion of other mature attachments (e.g. the Orson Welles-directed film of 1942 The Magnificent Ambersons). The first version of Nancy Dowd’s movie (Buffalo Ghosts) that was eventually released as Coming Home, featured a souvenir store on an army base in the Dakotas that emphasized the soon-to-be deployed Viet Nam soldier’s tie solely to Mother, not to wives or other love objects. Such sappy mementos as embroidered mommy pillows, for sale to officers and enlisted men alike, may have been too hot to handle.

Nancy Dowd, screenwriter

Scaer is the first author I have found who mentions the switch from happy face to angry face that causes baby to feel shame and guilt, literally turning his face away from the scary mom. For these men, women are always dangerously unpredictable and fit the archetype of Gorgon or Medusa. See Moreover, women, especially modern women, may signify the onset of a terrifying modernity that will only make mother more overpowering and omnipresent. Rosebud!

Here is what I find most instructive about Scaer’s work. He deals with the highly variable individual case history, yet government bureaucrats, not to speak of other professionals, deal with large populations, for whom one size fits all—the latest DSM manual for psychiatrists, the state-imposed school curriculum, the rules set up by Medicare and insurance companies. If childhood trauma is as frequent as Scaer’s stats suggest, then we are not educating youngsters where they need it most. For the lesson of trauma is this: every child needs a safe place with clear boundaries in order to explore the real world that s/he must master to survive and thrive. Distant bureaucrats or entirely cerebral teachers, or  hurried, un-empathic, physicians, hemmed in by the fear of litigation, or simply untrained in the latest discoveries in neurology and endocrinology, cannot treat the traumatized patient or student, and as Scaer argues, that includes a huge proportion of their clientele.

Finally, can children in isolated rural areas, dominated perhaps by religious fundamentalists, ever feel safe? Can kids in urban ghettoes, or anyone who is a member of a stigmatized group ever feel safe in public schools or anywhere else? And how do we know if we feel safe or not; we may be stoic or too polite to admit even to ourselves how we feel as we face the great questions of the day. There are private questions that often arouse shame when discussed publicly. I do not expect that my readers will divulge intimacies either here or in social media in general, nor, I suppose, should they.

September 9, 2009

Preventive Medicine and Preventive Politics

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Tonight the President will say something about health care reform, hoping to rescue the Great Overhaul  from what he and his supporters take to be the lies and growls of selfish individualists– the militaristic menagerie of what is called “the Right” by right-on lefties and left-liberals. I don’t know how this fight will be ended, if ever, but today’s blog will comment on the dangers to health of 1. Excessive alienation ; and 2. Polarization and hatred of the other side.  Consider this brief statement to be a contribution to preventive medicine, specifically the reduction of cortisol excretions from the adrenal glands that, if secreted too often, lead to lowered immunity from infectious diseases and a multitude of dangerous inflammations.

As I showed in a prior blog, “Preventive Politics and Socially Responsible Capitalists, 1930s-1940s,” (READ IT: the social psychologists, sociologists, and cultural anthropologists centered at Harvard University, faced with the challenge of attractive and dynamic ideologies of either fascism or communism, were not concerned with optimum mental health, understood today to be the capacity for rational political participation, love, work, and empathy. No, they were chiropractors of the psyche, bent on achieving “social cohesion” or “equilibrium” by subtly disciplining bright students who might become radicalized, and then go on to become an internal Fifth Column as these best and brightest would undoubtedly rise to the top of every American institution. That such a discipline devoted to “adjustment” (not innovation) might curb the creative contributions of their students and of other Americans treated similarly was not their problem.

One of their colleagues, Harold Lasswell (of the U. of Chicago), political advisor to the newly formed Committee For Economic Development (founded in 1942 and adopting Keynesian economics; thank you spirit of Hyman Minsky for telling me about them), actually favored the formation of a national board that would assess would-be leaders, using Henry A. Murray’s Thematic  Apperception Test, a test that was presented deceptively to its client users. Lasswell’s biographer credited him with the invention of “preventive politics,” a concept meant to be attached to the beneficent strategy of “preventive medicine.”

Preventive medicine is extolled in HR 3200, but not defined, and the only Obama reference to it that I heard was a mention that diabetics should lose weight to avoid amputations of their feet (and he linked this point to a larger argument that doctors were avoiding such advice in order to enhance their income through profitable amputations). [In tonight’s speech, he gave the example of mammograms and colonoscopies, i.e., screening. C.S. 7:30pm PT.]  Neither he nor any other politican has dwelled upon a broader approach to preventive medicine as a cost-saving approach to health care, and I count on my friends and other readers to tell me whether or not the media punditry has explained what they take preventive medicine to mean. [Think of smoking, obesity, and alcohol as the three chief causes of preventible death: all linked to depression.]

The Over-alienated and under-educated.    It should be obvious that the intense polarization of the “culture wars” and the deterioration of civility as many opponents confront their “enemies” cannot be good for stress-reduction. As I have argued here before, there is a broad consensus regarding the need for both a private and a public sector: reasonable people can argue about the efficacy of tasks better undertaken by market competition or state regulation and investment. Those on the “progressive” or “communitarian” side who see “the Right” as a monolith of buccaneering laissez-faire capitalists, protofascist or fascist and irrational, are necessarily mobilized for combat 24/7. While those on the Right who see all programs of public health as proto-fascistic, statist infringement of personal liberty and local control, produced by the secret machinations of mad scientists in cahoots with Wall Street, are similarly over-agitated, to their own detriment. For this reason, I have emphasized here the study of history,* mathematics, political theory, economics, and all the sciences in the schools, for such subjects, properly taught (that is, without indoctrination), can enable citizens not only to read legislation and analyze specific policies with greater competence:  An informed electorate, truth-seekers all, should be able to empathize with those who in reality share many, if not every single social and personal goal. And empathy reduces hatred and keeps the fight-and-flight mechanism working to preserve a good life. Question for the Left: do you really want everybody to be poor, backward, and under the thumb of bureaucrats?

*History is not a science, but a set of competing theories about the past. Anyone who teaches it as uncontroversial and settled is miseducating the students and setting them up for a lifetime of distorted perceptions. One way to sublimate rage (for instance in response to Obama’s speech) is to identify his misrepresentations, convenient ambiguities, and downright errors, then publicize them. I suppose that is why I blog.

Added after Obama speech to joint session of Congress, 9-10-09. Upon reflection, it was an appalling performance, filled with switches. But the well-meaning liberal may not see what I did. Briefly, Obama, taking the tone of the impassioned black preacher in pure revivalist mode, placed himself on the side of the angels and the beloved community. That is, he would not be partisan but would embody the civility (i.e. Christian charity) I mentioned above, with utopia just around the corner. Not long after that he condemned his Republican opponents as liars irresponsibly disseminating erroneous claims about the legislation. First he took credit for rescuing Americans from economic disaster, then came on as a compassionate centrist, who would have to give up a single-payer plan (or anything else that the far left-wing of his party was demanding?).  With no tentativeness, he promised that his plan would be paid for through eliminating fraud and waste in Medicare, though the cost would be 900 billion dollars. On tort reform, he began by hinting that it would now be included in the next draft of legislation (gaining applause: would he be dissing the trial lawyers?), but then handed it off to a cabinet secretary for experimental study in selected states, as if the data were not already clear enough. Finally, after annexing the sentimental feelings about the death of Edward Kennedy, he ended with an apocalyptic view of failure should his legislation not pass. Throughout he took the tone of the good father who had been tested beyond all endurance by the evil cable and radio commentators, the town-hall meetings, and any other opposition. He was generally vehement and accusatory to my ears.  I find it personally very dispiriting that the authoritarian posture and rhetoric are not seen by my friends who are left-liberals and who will agree with Harry Reid that the speech was “a game-changer.”

Let me now merge yesterday’s blog on “taking responsibility” for one’s education and the implications of his speech and its silence on the prerequisites for good health (what I have been calling preventive medicine). The limited view he has displayed so far on this question is worrisome and even bizarre. How can we “take responsibility” for our health if we don’t have clean air, clean water, and clean food? How can we “take responsibility” for our health if children are not taught from early childhood on such basic questions as enhancing their body’s resistance to disease, eating correctly,  and avoiding unnecessary stress to bones and muscles (add your own preventive measures here), while strengthening  bodies and brains with appropriate activities, such as dance, low-impact athletics, and the arts in general? In other words, the study of human physiology and the preservation of the body (along with the enlargement of the imagination and of inter-personal skills) must begin as soon as the child can process the instruction. Whether the federal government or schools and parents (armed with good science) alone should be overseeing such enhanced education is a matter for public debate: my own preference lies with market competition, although I am also in favor of state investment in science, medical research, and education, for state sponsorship does not necessarily entail state control of laboratories or schoolrooms.  But then I may be among the last of the puritans, or maybe the Greeks: a sound mind in a sound body. Or, faced with the ambiguous  statism of this administration, are we hovering on the brink of a new majority? If that majority is anti-science, then our country will face stagnation and terminal decline.

September 3, 2009

Manifest Destiny or Political Liberty?

de Chirico imagines Apollinaire

The poet Apollinaire once wrote that he was more interested in what divided men than in what united them, and most of all, he said, he wanted to know what gnaws at their hearts. That sentiment remains uppermost in my thoughts, especially at this time when the U.S. is confronted with a health reform bill that proposes funding for preventive medicine and mental health services, even though there is zero agreement among practitioners as to what constitutes sound protocols in either of those fields. All my prior blogs have addressed this problem (see the entries on panic attacks, sadomasochism, social psychologists defining civilian morale and preventive politics or psychoanalyzing Hitler, embedded antisemitism, the Pacifica memoir, etc.).

Whatever I have learned throughout my long life about the human heart and its tangled emotions, the most original contributions have been gleaned from very close reading, particularly during the many years spent with Herman Melville (1819-1891), both as  man and writer. One reason that Melville has been claimed by readers and propagandists with incompatible politics is his constant switching from one point of view to another, changing sides or positions with breathtaking speed.  As I have argued throughout my book on the so-called Melville Revival, he never feels safe or at home wherever he may be on the questions that agitated the American nineteenth century–Jacksonian political styles and mass politics, westward expansion and Indian removal; abolitionism, Civil War, and Reconstruction; angry de-skilled artisans and a potentially mutinous new working class; evolution and the higher Biblical criticism; nascent socialism in Europe; naval discipline; and the growing power of women in the family–especially in their role as moral reformers, to a degree, displacing paternal authority.

[From Hunting Captain Ahab:]  The switches from one unsafe prospect to another are diverting. As “White-Jacket” (1850), Melville abruptly rejected the piecemeal reform he had just been advocating: his proposed ban on flogging could not end injustices meted out to enlisted men whose class interest in pacifism was “essentially” opposed by glory-seeking officers. White-Jacket fatally defined the situation that class collaborationists, fascist and antifascist alike, have ever attempted to render invisible:

“…can men, whose interests are diverse, ever hope to live together in a harmony uncoerced? Can the brotherhood of the race of mankind ever hope to prevail in a man-of-war, where one man’s bane is another man’s blessing? By abolishing the scourge, shall we do away with tyranny; that tyranny which must ever prevail, where of two essentially antagonistic classes in perpetual contact, one is immeasurably the stronger? [i]

Moreover as the black cook “Fleece” pointed out in Moby-Dick, “the sharks” did not care to be converted. Such “dark” perceptions were dangerous but essential to a morally ambitious artist faithful to social reality. If moral reform is only a blast of hot air, then structural transformation is on the agenda.

[i] 19. Quoted by H. Bruce Franklin, The Victim As Criminal And Artist, 39. Franklin uses this passage to make a claim for Melville as primitive communist. In Chapter XVI of his unpublished biography, the Progressive Henry A. Murray revealingly distorted the passage, minimizing Melville’s description of a structural antagonism. Rather, Melville is describing point of view as dependent on one’s place in the hierarchy: “War, for example, which offered officers their only opportunity for glory, was anticipated more eagerly by them than by the seamen.” Although Harvard professor Alan Heimert has identified Ahab with John Calhoun, neither White-Jacket nor Ahab condones coercive harmony. However, noting the differing interests of sailors and officers does not make Melville a Marxist. Cf. John Calhoun’s defense of slavery as a positive good: “…there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other…There is and always has been in an advanced stage of wealth and civilization, a conflict between labor and capital. The condition of society in the South exempts us from the disorders and dangers resulting from this conflict.” Quoted in Frederick Jackson Turner, The United States 1830-1850 (New York: Norton paperback, 1965), 197. [end book excerpt]

In my last blog, I distanced myself from the postmodernists, particularly those who rejected modernity and Enlightenment as elevating the protofascist “mob society” to use Hannah Arendt’s famous term. Melville, in one of his many personas, could do that too, perhaps because he suffered from double-binds that seemed specific to a science-driven world that was challenging the traditions that once made people feel at home in their skins. Astonishingly, in all my reading in the cures offered to “neurotic” or “nervous” patients from the late nineteenth century on, I found no recognition of the conflicts that Melville himself had identified throughout his oeuvre, but most blatantly in his “crazy” novel, Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852), which I view as Moby-Dick brought home to the family, with the writer Pierre as analog to Captain Ahab, two of Melville’s traveling company of Prometheans.

A good teacher is supposed to state clearly the hoped-for outcome of a curriculum (and this website is a sort of syllabus), so here goes:

Ideally, readers of my blogs should be able to identify ambiguities or conflicts (reconcilable or irreconcilable) specific to modernity. These include the search for truth vs. (upper-class) Order; intellectual independence vs. unswerving loyalty to family or state; capital vs. labor (? I used to think that this was so); science vs. religion; and (“rootless”) cosmopolitanism vs. narrow “racial” or “ethnic” identification or “pluralism” as “rooted” cosmopolitanism.  To the extent that the pseudo-moderate men attempt to reconcile conflicts that may be irreconcilable, they place citizens in Orwellian double-binds:  inverting knowledge and ignorance, praise and humiliation, freedom and slavery. It follows that participatory politics and other processes intended to legitimate authority are stymied if these inversions operate inside us.  So we end up with unquestioned allegiance to a favorite pundit, and relinquish thinking for ourselves.

It is not my claim that no reforms should be advanced short of total structural transformation by which I mean a revolution in social property relations; it is a question of conceptual clarity.  Tactical compromises and coalitions are pointless unless located in the realm of the possible; utopian fantasies of unattainable social harmony lead to disillusion and perhaps despair followed by violence or apathy. Social conflict should be analyzed with a view to real difference of interest: ethnocultural or gender categories as the primary source of “identity” are not only essentialist; they mystify internal class conflicts in that group or gender or nationality and sink the dissenting individual (e.g., as modern artist or scientist).

Moreover, insofar as “identity politics” posit self-contained “communities” such categories deflect attention from interdependence with other groups and with nature.  But most crucially, the search for “identity” is an imperative formulated by reactionaries worried about “continuity” and “cohesion” in those modern societies that continually question authority; the modernists (deemed iconoclastic by their opponents) seek new forms of order that may “de-skill” kings and clerics.

How do competing “historicisms” alleviate or worsen the pressures of double binds? I contrast two of them: one is now dominant in the humanities, while the second one promises potential advance in our undercivilized war-ridden world.

A. Historicism as “blood-and-soil” pluralism or “ethnoculturalism” or “ethnopluralism”: the “identity politics” created by the pseudo-moderate men.  Defining itself against the New Unpredictability, i.e., the open-ended inductive methods of science, the new civil liberties and miscegenating “rootless cosmopolitanism” of the radical Enlightenment, ethnopluralism denies the existence of universal truths or ethical standards since there are only “group facts”; hence there can be no conflict between the independent thinker and the group.  These corporatist[1] thinkers (pluralists and cultural relativists) may attempt to restore a racially or ethnically homogeneous “community” which is innocently erotic, harmonious, pre-capitalist, myth-loving and patriarchal (i.e., ruled by the wisely integrative good father); free of the disintegrating Enlightenment (Hebraic, radical Protestant, technocratic, consumerist) intellect: everyone is protected, rooted and comfortable with her/his place and modest possessions, not tormented by the expectation of autonomy (which is caricatured as leading to anomie or the insatiable will-to-power or masochism).

B. Historicism as critical historical analysis. We should understand that the imagination has a social history that must be retrieved if we are to transcend the irrational politics of the past.  A critical history will not simply look at class, “race,” and gender in a static fashion to detect “positive” and “negative” images, or heroic myths, or gender/racial/ethnic archetypes, or instincts for “innate aggression” or “Thanatos.”  Rather, a critical history examines all the institutions that limit or expand opportunities and choices; people and their emotions are in motion, (partially) accepting or rejecting inherited narratives that diagnose difficulties and recommend solutions.  Even if some human characteristics are proven to be genetically transmitted, aggression for instance, it should be explained why some people seem out of control while others master their instincts in the interest of peaceful conflict-resolution: What are the ideological and environmental conditions that limit or expand choices?  Unlike some postmodernists or “new historicists,” I do not conclude that people are stamped or inscribed by discourses/ environments, even though individual and social conflicts are historically concrete and require site-specific contextual analysis.  Nor does this historicism automatically preclude comparisons and contrasts with institutions and conflicts in other cultures and earlier periods as some conservative cultural relativists would have it.

My final goal is the reclamation of the amelioration, critical thought and universalist ethics promoted by the Radical Enlightenment: Can there be a preformulated good myth, a “narrative of resistance” (Richard Slotkin), or is perpetual improvisation and the open-ended process of anti-mythic narrative (analysis, revision, and reconfiguration of past and present) the enlightened alternative to the Symbolist politics of the Progressives?  For example, their paternalistic “reform-or-ruin” prescription for preventive politics (Lasswell and Murray) does not remove, however gradually, what may be structural causes of conflict, hence is a form of psychological and political warfare, not the social and individual progress it wants to be.

I will end with some deathless words from Melville’s character, the abolitionist Father Mapple:

“Delight is to him- a far, far upward, and inward delight- who against the proud gods and commodores of this earth, ever stands forth his own inexorable self. Delight is to him whose strong arms yet support him, when the ship of this base treacherous world has gone down beneath him. Delight is to him, who gives no quarter in the truth, and kills, burns, and destroys all sin though he pluck it out from under the robes of Senators and Judges.”

In the context of this particular blog, the “sin” is yielding to another, however admired or adored, our critical capacities as citizens with both rights and duties.

[1] Corporatist does not refer to modern corporations and their power, but to the institutional style associated with  medieval Europe and the Christian-Platonic tradition.  It is the cultural style of the organic conservatives who believe that hierarchies are natural and beneficial; all diversity the gift of a perfect God.

August 25, 2009

Preventive Politics and socially responsible capitalists, 1930s-40s

Talcott Parsons still hot

The following excerpt from my book on the Melville Revival logically follows on the heels of the recent blog on negative images of “the People” and should be read together. It contains some of the most damning material that I found in my research, for “preventive medicine” and “preventive politics” are hellishly and unscientifically intertwined, and have been funded by the most liberal foundations and other sources of support.

[From Hunting Captain Ahab, chapter 9:] The pursuit of Melville in elite eastern universities during the late 1930s was coterminous with the excising of “radical” will through antifascist liberal surgery. As world war loomed, Marxists and many others from Center to Left were predicting fascism in America. New Deal policies, they argued, could not avert or repair the periodic structural crises of capitalism; only a corporate state could suppress the class warfare that would flare anew in the depression that was expected to follow demobilization. Irrationalist moderate conservatives viewed moralistic self-righteousness (on the Left) and selfishness (on the Right) as the source of social violence.

In 1939 or 1940, three moderate men, Robert Hutchins, Paul Hoffman, and William Benton, invited University of Chicago faculty and “personal friends” from big business to join a study group, The American Policy Commission. Hutchins was President of the University of Chicago and defender of Great Books; he and his former partner Chester Bowles would be members of America First; Hoffman was President of Studebaker, later chief administrator for the Marshall Plan and first president of the Ford Foundation; Benton was Vice-President of the University of Chicago, promoter of modern radio advertising, Amos ‘n Andy, and Muzak, later publisher of Encyclopedia Britannica and other educational media, Assistant Secretary of State, then originator of “The Voice of America,” U.S. Senator from Connecticut, and backer of UNESCO enabling legislation. The American Policy Commission evolved into The Committee For Economic Development, institutionalized in 1942; its purpose to meet the anticipated postwar depression with Keynesian economics. The CED distinguished its “socially responsible” policies from those of the laissez-faire National Association of Manufacturers; it brought scholarly specialists together with liberal businessmen to steer America clear of the mad extremes of Fascism and Communism, later McCarthyism, inflated arms budgets, and commercial broadcasting.

The omnipresent political scientist Harold Lasswell was central to their project of preventive politics: the Jung-inspired Lasswell discovered the psychopathology of communism and fascism. Benton’s biographer unambiguously placed Lasswell’s probe in the democratic tradition:

“[Lasswell] looked hard and long at these worldwide disorders of the political mind, hoping to find in them the terms for a program of preventive medicine and that could help maintain America as a free society with equal opportunity for human dignity open to all.”

With the examples of Plato and other classicists at hand, Lasswell and other psychopathologists could protect the old master narrative. Nazis sighted on the horizon (like the jingoistic followers of Father Coughlin and other American fascists) must be the People: sneaky, bloody, perverse, selfish and paranoid. Without good father navigation the hysterical People would be driven by shadows in Plato’s Cave, go berserk and drown “business.” Lasswell was worried about the possible transition from fascism to communism; while attempting to overcome Marxian socialism, (rational) European businessmen had been captured by the “romantic Fascists” of the squeezed “lower middle-class” who might go on to liquidate their former patrons.

Interestingly, for Lasswell in 1936, the scenario in America seemed different. Here the middle class was so identified with “big business” and “big finance” that it was likely to fall for the propaganda against “reds” and smash labor. To avoid “piecemeal fascism” and to enhance “peaceful development,” Lasswell (and other ego psychologists) prescribed class-consciousness (but integration) through pluralist bargaining in “interest groups” to achieve emotional and intellectual independence from monopolistic big business. In 1941, Lasswell urged vigilant sighting and sympathetic treatment of bad seeds:

[Lasswell:] “Public opinion is profoundly distorted when there are deference crises in society; and these appear when the level of deference is suddenly interfered with, and when destructive personalities exercise a directive effect upon public opinion. Some persons are at odds with themselves, carrying heavy loads of anxiety, and from these anxiety types extremism may be expected. We need to become aware of which social practices in the home, school, factory, office–contribute to anxiety and which to security. We may be able to lower the level of the explosive reserves when human development is subject to gross distortion.”

Lasswell could have been describing Herman Melville’s anxious disillusion with paternal authority; perhaps explosions would be obviated by enhanced civilian morale with methods advocated by Harvard social psychologists Murray and Allport, also disseminated in 1941. By 1942, these social scientists were certain: the Head Self was sturdy guardian of “the public interest,” whereas overly egalitarian motions inside the Western Body levelled walls, erected barricades, then tossed up lonesome corpses. In his article “Propaganda and Social Control,” Talcott Parsons, Murray’s Harvard associate and mentor, addressed mental health practitioners, proposing that the government practice “social psychotherapy” to stabilize the national consensus. He advocated subliminal “reinforcement type” propaganda to calm the “revolutionary” and “disruptive” types that were inducing structural change or undermining “confidence in authority and leadership.”

For Parsons, maladjusted neurotics were fomenting conflict and fragmentation, not adaptation and interdependence. But froward rebels could be cured in the socially responsible psychiatrist’s office through “steady discipline to which the patient is subjected in the course of his treatment. While the fact that he is required and allowed to express himself freely may provide some immediate satisfactions, he is not really allowed to ‘get away’ with their implications for the permanent patterning of his life and social relations, but is made, on progressively deeper levels, conscious of the fact that he cannot ‘get away’ with them. The physician places him in a kind of ‘experimental situation’ where this is demonstrated over and over again (561).”

Compare the Parsons protocol with the sermon of a German theologian in 1933 switching “secular Jews,” the most dangerous type of atheist:
“Everywhere where something can disintegrate decomposed, can be destroyed, maybe marriage and family, patriotism or the Christian church, discipline and order, chastity and decency; everywhere there is something to gain, he is involved there. He is mocking with his ingenious joking, with his smart and skillful talent, with his persistent subversive energy. An atheist always acts destructively; but nowhere is the destructive force of this attitude as devastating as in the case of a Jewish person who wasted his rich heritage from the Old Testament and joined the swine.”

Pragmatic Harvard social psychologists had appropriated Madisonian pluralist politics, ignoring the libertarian, anti-corporatist aspect of their theoretical underpinnings. For the new moderates, social stability was achieved when triumphalist factions (instigated by religious enthusiasm or other forms of zealotry such as an inordinate love of gain), were replaced by amoral interest groups; relieved of (Hume’s) plundering or leveling extremists, bargains could be struck, reconciling private interest with public good: the moderates would have clambered onto solidly “mobile-middle ground.” Reading Madison in Federalist #10, they could infer that free speech was a safety valve, circumscribed spatially and irrelevant to political processes with realistic goals. Having banished irrationality from their own procedures, the Harvard clique could see themselves as resolutely antifascist, for it was the mob-driven Nazi movement (likened by Parsons to romantic puritans in other writing of 1942) that was pathological.

Ritual rebellions could be safely confined within psychiatrists’ offices or the pages of Typee (or in the bed Ishmael shared with Queequeg). Parsons’ contribution appeared in Psychiatry along with a germinal article “Hitler’s Imagery and German Youth,” by Erik Homburger Erikson, another colleague of Murray’s at Harvard. Erikson presented Hitler as a “great adventurer” possessed of “borderline traits”; he was the perennial adolescent, a big brother to other unyielding gangsters. Erikson held that broken-spirited German fathers lacking inner integration and authority were responsible for the (hysterical) romantic revolt of the sons. Erikson’s identity politics owed more to Murray and the romantic conservative Jung, a theorist of racial character, than to the cosmopolitan and bourgeois Freud. Soon the Jungian analyst Murray (who admired the Wandering Jew Freud’s eyes that penetrated walled-up areas of the psyche) would be advising President Roosevelt that Hitler, the autodidact Id-man, the Dionysiac Man of the Crowd who had overcome big Capital, was an “arch-Romantic,” a composite of Lord Byron and Al Capone, a paranoid schizophrenic, a homosexual, and probably a carrier of Jewish blood through his father; ergo Hitler’s “uncanny knowledge of the average man”should “be appropriated to good advantage.” Disillusion with the Führer was perilous; Murray argued for “a profound conversion of Germany’s attitude” after the Allied victory:

[Murray:] “Disorganization and confusion will be general, creating breeding ground for cults of extreme individualism. A considerable part of the population will be weighted down with a heavy sense of guilt, which should lead to a revival of religion. The soil will be laid [sic] for a spiritual regeneration; and perhaps the Germans, not we, will inherit the future.”

Lasswell and Murray, both progressives, thought as one. In his Power and Personality (1948), Lasswell contemplated the continuing plausibility of Marxist analysis, worried about “paranoids” with their fingers on nuclear buttons, and urged “genuine democrats to expose the dubious and dangerous expectation of democracy through mass revolution.” The world revolution of the twentieth century would probably culminate in mutually annihilating technocratic garrison states unless “the scientists of democracy” intervened to create the “sociocapitalist” “free man’s commonwealth.” Murray’s personality tests (developed in the mid-1930s and during his stint with the OSS during the war) fertilized Lasswell’s febrile, holistic imagination. While deploying the concepts of accountability and openness that for Locke had been indispensable to the functioning of popular sovereignty, Lasswell, with Murray’s personnel assessment tests in tow, had turned Locke upside down:

[Lasswell:] “One of the practical means by which tensions arising from provocativeness can be reduced is by the selection of leaders from among non-destructive, genuinely democratic characters…. This has already gone far in appointive jobs. Several businesses are accustomed to promote executives not only on the basis of the general administrative record but according to scientific methods of personality appraisal. The aim is to discern whether factors in the personality structure counterindicate the placing of heavier responsibilities on the person.
” To a limited extent selection procedures in army, navy and civil administration have been directed to the same end. But the procedure is not yet applied to elective office. What is needed is a National Personnel Assessment Board set up by citizens of unimpeachable integrity which will select and supervise the work of competent experts in the description of democratic and antidemocratic personality. The Assessment Board can maintain continuing inquiry into the most useful tests and provide direct services of certifications of testers. When this institution has been developed it will slowly gather prestige and acceptance. Sooner or later candidates for elective office will have enough sense of responsibility to submit voluntarily to an investigation by the board, which would say only that the candidate has, or has not, met certain defined minimum standards. Gradually, the practice of basic personality disclosure can spread throughout all spheres of life, including not only local, state, national or inter-nation government personnel, but political parties, trade unions, trade associations, churches and other volunteer associations.
[Lasswell, cont.]”It is an axiom of democratic polity that rational opinion depends upon access to pertinent facts and interpretations. Surely no facts are more pertinent than those pertaining to character structure of candidates for leadership. Progressive democratization calls for the development of such new institutions as the Assessment Board for the purpose of modernizing our methods of self-government.” [end Lasswell quote]

The National Personnel Assessment Board set up by citizens of unimpeachable integrity,” “gradually” penetrating every institution, would control definitions of acceptable rational opinion. And yet Lasswell was no friend to totalitarian regimes; as member of the Research Advisory Board and spokesman for CED, he condemned loyalty investigations. Instead of imitating sleazy witch-hunters on the Right or the “negative” tactics of the ACLU on the Left, he called for an overhaul of leaders and the led (the latter ultimately responsible for protecting First Amendment freedoms). A balance would be struck between national security and individual freedom through formation of community discussion groups, to be fed by appropriately cautious government experts supplying an interactive (but “expert”-controlled) free press and public broadcasting system. In the 1950s, Lasswell’s study of political symbols helped social scientists refine their tools in the surveillance of blooming political dissidents. Murray’s OSS recruitment test of 1943 could weed potentially disloyal government employees, while his Thematic Apperception Test (1935) could enhance content-analysis of mass communications. Lasswell frankly explained the purposes that infused the new discipline of communications studies, said to be relevant to literary scholars and historians; indeed he decoded authoritarian styles of discourse throughout.

Modern preventive politics did not begin with the machinations of Lasswell & Co. but with Humean or Burkean autopsies of the regicidal English and French Revolutions. According to the reform-or-ruin school of preventive hygiene, foul winds and cancers appear when aristocrats allow vices to ferment in the bowels; the social bond is broken, virtue and vice trade places. Through alert planning (like education and sports for the masses and psychoanalysis for their betters), elites would become more flexible while containing their passion for libertine excess and luxurious display; meanwhile the People would have healthy outlets for their discontent and desirousness–like libertine excess and luxurious display especially in the mass media.

Thus Reason, Conscience, and the State would be brought into congruence. The reform-or-ruin strategy of social hygiene and preventive politics would dominate the political science and social psychology created by moderate conservatives. Understrapping their dreams of thoroughgoing surveillance, the watchbird watched everybody, leaders and the led. [end excerpt from and Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival, footnotes not included]

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