Sunday, November 5, 2017

Psychoanalysts address Donald Trump

Reading and listening to psychoanalysts writing and speaking about Donald Trump, I am struck by the repetition of mistakes often made by people in this profession.  The comments I have noticed are so knowing.  Knowing about what's wrong with Donald Trump, his diagnosis or his psychodynamics, or knowing about how dangerous he is, or how much in denial so many people are about how dangerous he is.  Or knowing about the unconscious psychodynamics of his appeal, or of the way that many people, in voting for him, vote against their own self-interest (as determined by the author).  Psychoanalysts in general tend to present themselves as experts, particularly as experts about unconscious dynamics, about the unconscious itself.

This is an occupational hazard of psychoanalysis, i.e. to believe that one is an expert on the one thing about which no one can be an expert:  the unconscious.  For, by definition, the unconscious always eludes our knowledge, our self knowledge.  Expertise about the unconscious is a contradiction in terms. If we psychoanalysts have an expertise, it consists in sensing the location of our blind spots and trying to learn about them from others (our patients, our families, our friends) who can see us more clearly than we can see ourselves, or from our own dreams and reveries.

In the case of Donald Trump, a commonly shared blind spot is obliviousness to the existence and experience of the millions of people who voted for him.  I suspect this obliviousness is shared by many psychoanalysts as well as those people, the "elite,"against whom Trump was able to mobilize so much resentment.  Is it surprising that people have a huge resentment against those who are oblivious to them and their suffering?   Yet, people like me are continually shocked that there are so many people out there who voted enthusiastically for a man who they felt spoke for them in a very loud, belligerent, unintimidated, voice.

There is a lot of resentment out there directed toward psychoanalysts and psychoanalysis, and I would guess that we feed it with our pretensions to expertise.  But wait---I'm starting to sound pretty knowing myself.  So maybe some of you reading this will comment on what I am overlooking---.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Psychoanalytic Reflections on Liberalism in the Wake of the 2016 election

Liberals, like me, keep being shocked and dismayed that there are all those millions of people out there who voted for Donald Trump.  We condescend to them when we say that they voted against their own interest.  Not that there isn't truth to this statement, as it has become apparent that 22 million or more people, many if not most of them Trump voters, would lose health insurance upon repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act. But we lose sight of the fact that we liberals, too, vote against our own interest in many ways.  Bernie Sanders succeeded in showing how votes for Hillary Clinton worked against the interests of many liberal people.  The neoliberal order reinforced the chains binding us liberals to the individualistic, materialistic treadmill on which many of us have the privilege of running.  The point is not that any of us can see clearly what is in our own interest, or in the best interests of anyone else.  Rather, everyone's interests are multiple and conflicting and ambiguous.  How arrogant is it of me to claim that I know what is in your self-interest, not to mention my own?

People in my community of liberal-leaning psychoanalytically inclined therapists and theorists have taken to analyzing and critiquing forms of ethnocentrism and prejudice that involve dis-identifying with certain other people: immigrants, people of other races or cultures or ethnic or socio-economic groups.  The idea is that people can defensively maintain a preferred self-image, or preferred in-group identification, by contrast with a degraded or demonized group of people defined as "other".  A counter-ideal of multiculturalism has evolved, one that seeks to break down prejudice-driven barriers to communication and understanding.  I myself have promoted, and continue to subscribe to, this point of view.

It has become apparent to me, in the wake of the 2016 election, that there is another form of "othering" at work here: the "othering" of those who "other".  The ultimate form of othering takes the form of rendering those others invisible.  The shock that I and many others with whom I identify feel that all those people voted for Trump  and other politicians on the left speaks to how invisible those many millions of people had become for us.  Well, folks, Trump sure knows how to make people visible.

The conundrum I am describing is one that is familiar, on an individual or dyadic level, to psychoanalytically inclined psychotherapists.  We have learned, and keep learning the hard way, that when you try to address a problem, you first reproduce it.  As the psychoanalyst Edgar Levenson pointed out, if you try to point out a person's sensitivity, you hurt his feelings. You become, for the moment, insensitive. This is the phenomenon that Freud led us to call transference, though Freud misleadingly saw transference as derived solely from past experiences and relationships, rather than reproduced by the analyst in the present interaction with the patient.  One doesn't facilitate therapeutic change by scrupulously avoiding insensitivity, though one must try, or by commenting on the patient's problem from afar.  Rather, one must recognize that insensitivity and other forms of hurtful behavior on the part of the analyst are inevitable despite one's best efforts, providing an opportunity to work on a problem in vivo.  The therapeutic process, from this point of view, occurs as one reflects on how a hurtful pattern, in which both parties are implicated, has evolved.  This reflective process accounts for why psychoanalytic therapy can take so much longer than cognitive behavioral therapy in which the therapist is, to a large extent, a technician rather than fundamentally a participant-observer of the interaction of self and other.

I take this digression into the theory of psychoanalytic therapy to set the stage for a jump from the individual or dyadic level to the political level.  People like me who are shocked that so many misguided people voted for Trump must start by recognizing that we had rendered millions of people invisible and inferior.  We must start with this recognition.  In the therapy room, one could then go on to inquire into the process by which this situation evolved.  Such a concerned inquiry, in which one takes responsibility as a therapist for one's own role in creating an impasse, is in itself a big part of the cure or resolution.  If there is a parallel path to resolution on the political level, surely it involves listening and difficult dialogue.  If one finds oneself referring to millions of people as a "basket of deplorables," one does not backtrack, or clarify what one really meant, or claim to have misspoken. Rather, one must acknowledge and take responsibility for the prejudice and condescension that was revealed in what was said, without overlooking the fact that forms of violence emerged among some people at Trump rallies that was indeed deplorable.  People feel condescended to regardless of whether the speaker recognizes his or her own attitude.  Its best, in therapy and in politics, to get these undercurrents out on the table where they can be addressed forthrightly. 

Friday, January 9, 2015

Human feeling vs. realpolitik: the case of Israel and Gaza

This posting was begun several weeks ago:

In the last few days, I, and I'm sure many others, have felt revulsion and horror as we read about the human suffering caused by the Israeli attacks on Gaza, and the Hamas rocket attacks on Israeli towns.
Today, the NY Times reported that Israel may be trying to show that it still has "teeth" in the wake of the disastrous Lebanon war of the summer of 2007. The idea is that the image of a "weak" Israel following on that war emboldens Hamas and Hezbollah to believe that they can taunt and attack Israel with impunity. The attack on Gaza may be meant to show that Israel is no paper tiger, that it still has teeth.

I am struck by the disjunction between the sensibility that weeps for each human loss, the parent who has lost a child, the child who has lost a parent, and the strategizing mind-set referred to in the Times article. It seems to me that there is a dissociation built into this strategizing mind-set, an objectification of human life in the service of the attainment, or consolidation, of power. It might be argued that power is sought, in the long run, to preserve human life--that some are sacrificed now to preserve much more human life in the long run. According to this logic, there is, in the end, no real disjunction between realpolitik and human feeling. Powerlessness only leads to a Holocaust; the way to save millions of lives is to be powerful, to maintain superiority in violent capability against those who would seek to eliminate you by violence. The sensibility that weeps for each human loss is potentially dangerous to the extent that it disables regrettable, but necessary, sacrifice for the greater good.

What is left out by the this logic, from my point of view, is:
1. The way vengeance and sadism can creep into actions purportedly dictated by long-term humanitarian concerns.
2. The way violence breeds escalating violence, objectification of human life breeds further objectification, rather than peace based on accommodation to superior force.
3. The difficulty sorting out mixed motives from cynical invocation of high-minded motives to camouflage more purely destructive motives, or the dismissal of humanitarian motives in the service of discrediting one's political or military opponents.

Adversarial relationships breed splitting of benevolent motives from malevolent ones.  This splitting is self-reinforcing, creating the reality that it purports simply to recognize.  Acknowledging that we all  contain some mixture of destructive and constructive feelings and forces would lead to less of the objectification of others that makes killing, exploitation and oppression possible. As things stand, such an eventuality appears, to many of us, to make us, and our people, dangerously vulnerable.

De Blasio, the Police, and Race

The current confrontation between the New York City Police Benevolent Association and Mayor Bill de Blasio is a confrontation between black and white thinking about race, and a more complex racial reality.  On January 7, 2015, Former Police Officer Steve Osborne wrote an op-ed entitled "Why We're So Mad at de Blasio."  He wrote as if he spoke for a "we" that included all police officers.  In the article he wrote: "It did not help to tell the world about instructing his son, Dante, who is biracial, to be wary of the police, or to publicly signal support of anti-police protesters (for instance, by standing alongside the Rev. Al Sharpton, a staunch backer of the protests)." 

Some questions:  Does Steve Osborne identify as white?
Does he think he is speaking for all police officers, black and white and various shades of brown?
Would de Blasio have advised his son to be "wary" of the police if he thought of his son as white, as opposed to "biracial"?
Was de Blasio advising his son to be wary of all police officers, black and white?
Are protests against police brutality inherently "anti-police?"
Could "protest" be reframed as consciousness raising?  If so, whose consciousness?  
Do all white police officers agree with Osborne? If not, where are the dissenting voices?
Where are the voices of black police officers and those who identify as Latino, Asian, and so on?

Bill de Blasio, like Barack Obama, embodies the emerging complex racial reality of the twenty first century.  Di Blasio's father was of German origin, his mother of Italian origin. De Blasio was raised primarily by his mother and her family.  He changed his name from his father's "Wilhelm" to his mother's  "De Blasio" in adulthood.  He married and had children with an African-American woman.  He can speak with many voices, but has yet to do so in a way that can help the people of New York City, the United States, and the world to transcend polarizing prejudice-generating racial categories. 

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Police

Did we ever not know that police work is hazardous, that the police have to act boldly and with restraint, making split-second decisions about the use of force, sometimes deadly force, in ambiguous situations of indeterminate danger?  And did we ever not know that police officers sometimes use unnecessary force, sometimes deadly force, whether from panic or sadism or racial prejudice and hatred?

In recent weeks we have gone from a focus on police brutality and racial prejudice, to sympathy with the police for the deadly dangerous situations in which they are placed, choose to be placed, continually.  We swing from one pole to another, demonizing and idealizing the police in a search for clarity.  The truth is much more complex and confusing, not amenable to stereotyping.  

Sunday, May 11, 2014

At the Tribeca Film Festival I went to see "Gabriel", a film by Lou Howe and starring Rory Culkin. Rory Culkin played a young man diagnosed as schizophrenic who believes he is married to a young woman, played by Emily Meade, and that she loves him. **Spoiler alert!**: at the end of the movie, he stealthily waits till her father leaves the house, enters her room, then threatens her father with a knife when he returns home.  She talks her father into letting her and Gabriel take a walk to the beach, where she tells him she doesn't love him.  As the movie ends, she hugs him as police approach in the background.

The screening of the movie that I attended was sponsored by the Child Mind Institute of New York.  Its Director, Harold Koplowicz, interviewed Lou Howe and Rory Culkin following the screening.  Koplowicz began by saying something to the effect that when there is a medical illness, the doctor, the patient, and the patient's family are all on the same team against the illness.  But when there is mental illness, the patient sides with the illness.  I couldn't believe what I was hearing.  That means that its doctor vs. patient!

With that introduction, he turned to Rory Culkin, sitting there with below-shoulder length hair and an uneasy manner and asked him what he learned playing the part of Gabriel.  Culkin squirmed and shifted in his seat and finally said he didn't know what to say.  Koplowicz didn't ask him another question for quite some time.

Later in the evening, there was some discussion of what might happen to Gabriel after the movie ended. He would be arrested, hospitalized if he were lucky enough not to be imprisoned.  The generally gloomy if not alarmist speculations about Gabriel's future was suddenly interrupted by Culkin who said he thought that Gabriel's life was about to begin: he had gotten what he needed, the truth.  The young woman's telling him that she didn't love him was just what he needed.  Truth, not cure, is what I think the doctor should order.  

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The de-historicized 60s and Bob Dylan

Some people of my generation in the 60's famously said "Don't trust anyone over 30".  Thus was dismissed all human history up to that moment. Utopia had arrived, for the first time.

Bob Dylan resisted being labeled the "voice of his generation".  And now I think I understand why, in a way I couldn't understand back in the 60's.  To my own de-historicized mind at the time, Dylan's music was born out of the void, it had no ancestry, except perhaps for folk music.  To some extent, Dylan played into this de-historicized image by jettisoning his own roots: he replaced his family name, Zimmerman, with Dylan.  He did not present himself as a Jewish man from Northern Minnesota, but as a rootless wanderer, a descendant of the hoboes, of Woody Guthrie, a born again Christian. He was a self-made man, ironically, in the best Euro-American tradition of the New World where anyone can become whoever he wants to be. Each time he played, and plays, one of his songs, it is re-arranged.  He never plays quite the same song twice.  Always morphing, there is no static tradition or history in Dylan the man or in his work, except for the tradition of denying, or transcending, tradition.

Those of us who thought a new world was being born in the 60's have been undergoing a long and sobering morning after.  Events have proven far more complex and unpredictable than we could have imagined, defying understanding or categorization.  On one hand, we have seen as much or more violence in the world as ever.  We have seen a resurgence of the political right wing, of terrorism and reactive nationalism, of poverty, economic inequality, and social injustice.  Some of what has developed in a positive way is a legacy of the 60's; the Civil Rights movement has made lasting, if limited, changes in race relations in the United States.  The Women's Movement and Gay Rights have made undeniable, if again limited, progress. Some of what seems negative to someone of my political persuasion can be seen as continuous with the ethos of the 60's, in particular the anti-authoritarianism and individualism of the 60's seems continuous with the current, long-standing, resistance to government interference, of the present moment.

Looking back, it was incredibly and embarrassingly arrogant of some of us to think we could do better than any previous generation, that we could make a clean and radical break with the past.  Perhaps some of that arrogance was necessary to accomplish some of what is proving to be of lasting value.  Now when I listen to the various incarnations of Bob Dylan I hear echoes not only folk music, but of the blues, rhythm and blues, and something uniquely Dylan-esque, or perhaps Zimmerman-esque.  I hear the legacy of African-American slavery, a Jewish sensibility, a Euro-American faith in self-reinvention, a refusal to be confined by tradition with deep roots in tradition.  And I'm sure I'm not hearing the half of it.