July 25, 2006
Questioning authority (and other forms of "authoritarianism")
Sorry for the long post which is about to follow, but the time has come for me to return to the roots of my various political (doubtless infantile) disorders.
A better choice for the title of this post might be "Poli Psy 101" . . . (Ironically, by writing this post, I'm neglecting my search for one of the country's leading political psychologists -- Capitol Hill Blue's "Dr. Stephanie Crossfield"!)
The problem is, psychopolitical "disease" diagnoses are everywhere. A comment by Jon Thompson reminded me of an account I read recently about a doctoral student in psychology whose opinion that she was "not privileged" triggered a demand that she submit to psychological evaluation. She refused, and was expelled:
[Lorraine Land] started working on her doctorate in fall 2002 and had no major problems until October 2004, when she told psychology professor Cheryll Rothery-Jackson about an experience she had with clients of different socioeconomic backgrounds while doing a practicum at Friends Hospital in the Northeast.This is a private college, and I guess they can behave any way they want. And I suppose because the field is psychology, they have more leeway in getting inside the minds of their students than would, say a history or classics department. (At least I'd hope so.)
But there really is a growing tendency to label political opponents as mentally defective. It's not especially helpful to me, as I like to know what people think, and I am more concerned with whether they are right or wrong than in the mental processes underlying their thinking. My "rigid toilet training" post attempted to look at this in the context of "authoritarianism":
Dean, who's reinvented himself too many times to count, has now come up with a very popular meme that echoes the conservatism-as-mental-illness idea, but with a new twist -- the word "authoritarian" doesn't distinguish between conservatism and mental illness! It's a Marxist term which conflates the political and the personal into one grand evil."Authoritarian" (and other terms like it) are classic ad hominem attacks, because once a group is created and someone is associated with it, there's nothing to discuss. If an "authoritarian" wanted his municipality to devote more money to better streets and sewers, why, by so labeling him, his argument would be discredited. (Don't we all know fascists made the trains run on time?)
There's a term called "malignant narcissism" which I also hear from time to time. But anyone who thinks that "malignant narcissism" and "authoritarian" are in any way mutually exclusive should consider the case of North Korea's Kim Jong Il. He's both! I think psychoanalysis may be helpful in dealing with an unstable man like that, but it's of little value in ordinary political discussions, unless the goal is simply to yell and polarize. But the tendency of so many people to do it may indicate that hopeless polarization has set in -- to the point where all discussions are impossible, so ad hominem attacks (often launched by Choir A against Choir B) are the only thing left.
However, it's the "in" thing these days to do "Poli Psy," so I think it's high time that I check myself in for evaluation right here at this blog.
Back in the days when self-appointed political diagnostician John Dean was still a conservative, I was a Marxist in my thinking. Of course, I wasn't much of an authoritarian (my Marxism clashed with my anarchistic tendencies and lifestyle) and I'm still not much of an authoritarian. In fact, politically, every test I've taken shows me to be solidly in the libertarian camp.
People change their political opinions all the time. I've changed my mind countless times over the years. When I was in high school I was not just a Marxist, but a fiery radical. My radicalism didn't last long, as my political philosophy changed during the first couple of years I attended UC Berkeley. It turned me off to see what I perceived as uniformity of thought, and unquestioning acceptance of the virtues of socialism by so many. Many self-proclaimed "Marxists" didn't know the first thing about Marx; I soon learned that the most of the people who really knew Marxist theory were either:
a) opposed to Marxism as a result of studying it and seeing it in practice; orOf this latter group, most were Trotskyists.
Members of the Communist Party, while Marxists, tended to keep their Marxism in the closet, because they were told to, and they did as they were told as a matter of party discipline. You had to get close to them to get them to really discuss Marxism, but what I soon learned was that their kind of Marxism was tempered by a constant political realism. Communist Party Marxism was Marxism met up with the political maxim that "politics is the art of the possible." The Communist Party worked very hard, but in the background. The focus was always on issues to which they tried to get as many people as possible to relate.
But the Trots and the Sparts -- they were the Marxists who'd really and unabashedly talk Marxism. And why wouldn't they? Trotskyism, after all, was always a deviation from traditional Communism as it had come to be defined by Soviet theoreticians, and if you think about it, if you want to deviate from something, it's a prerequisite that you first know the "ism" you are deviating from. The Trots knew their stuff, but it was hard carrying on conversations with them, because they were like broken records.
Looking back on this, I'm remembering that my revulsion towards Communism was based on what I perceived as Communist authoritarianism.
By 1976 I had become so disillusioned with the left that I had decided I was a Libertarian. Learning about Cuba from people who'd been there did not endear me to the place. Gay bars which had been joyously cheering the victory of Fidel were closed down as places of bourgeois decadence not long after. Not much to cheer about. In general, Communists struck me as control freaks. People who, the more you got to know them, the more they wanted to tell you what to think. Communism in practice, I realized, was a very controlling deal. The ideology had an answer for everything. All you had to do was look it up, and follow Marxist principles. The Trots were more like fundamentalists in the sense that they could at least look up the text for themselves. But then they'd get into these fractious, tedious arguments, in the most hair-splitting detail. Insufferable. The Communist Party types were even worse, as they took direction from above. It was authoritarianism at its worst. No dissent at all. Party discipline was a prerequisite to any responsibility. If you wanted to join the Communist Party, you'd be given tasks involving utter drudgery (like standing around gathering signatures on some petition), and you'd be watched. Graded, like a child in school. Original thinking? Forget it. That's only for those with years proven to be "politically reliable."
So, I didn't like real Marxists, and I didn't like the idea of Marxism in government. However, I liked the hordes of fake Marxists (political poseurs) even less. None of them seemed free. I liked the idea of simply being left alone, and politically I was more of an anarchist than a Marxist, so Libertarianism (with its emphasis on leaving people alone) had an early and enduring appeal.
Nonconformity doubtless played a role, as I've always tended to rebel against whatever the status quo might be at a given place and time, provided I can identify it. I had long hair until everyone had long hair, then I had short hair (and so forth), and then I was into the early punk scene until that too became conformist, but the process is as silly as it is exhausting, because rebellion leads to conformity, which leads to rebellion. . . So, while I've long since abandoned following these cycles of mindless contrarianism, I still refuse to do something (or, especially, to think something) simply because someone tells me to.
My voting record, I think, reflects my evolution. In 1972 I voted for George McGovern, and in 1976 I voted for Roger McBride. But by 1980, I had come to see Ronald Reagan as a great enough threat that I didn't want to waste my vote by voting for the Libertarian. (More here.)
This is not to say that I liked the socialism I considered part and parcel of Democratic Party politics, mind you. What turned me off to Reagan above all was the "culture war" rhetoric; I thought he was part of a simplistic mindset which regarded long hair and pot smoking and gays as unpatriotic. The fact that he courted people then known as "televangelists" filled me with disgust, and even rage. The mistake that I thought was being made was what today is called "conflation." Generalizing about people by invoking cultural stereotypes (like saying all hippies are leftists when many weren't, or wouldn't have been) is a way of keeping them out of your tent, pleasing your own kind. But it's a cheap shot, and long term, it does damage. Rather than bashing hippies, Reagan should have bashed Marxism -- preferably with a long-haired staffer by his side. But he couldn't do this, because it might have been misunderstood, and he'd have lost votes. The truth is, many members of his generation hated hippies because of their appearance, just like (let's face it) many of them hated gays. Wittingly or unwittingly, I think that Reagan (much to the delight of the left, which obliged by providing stereotypes every step of the way) did much to perpetuate the conflation of the personal and the political.
If only it hadn't happened. But it did.
I think it was Reagan's single greatest mistake.
It's why I'd like to continue to call myself a Goldwater liberal, and also why I am quite irritated that John Dean is not only advancing a Marxist psychopolitical meme (that political enemies are "authoritarians"), but he does so in the name of Barry Goldwater (a man who was himself a victim of these tactics).
I'm not about to buy the Dean book, but if the prologue is any indication, it's a masterpiece of prevarication -- and above all, conflation.
Let me admit my bias here. I do not buy into the conventional history of Watergate.
I did for years, but it never made sense to me why Nixon's people would want to burglarize the DNC or "bug Larry O'Brien's office." (Jim Hougan, btw, was the first to debunk this thoroughly, and he's neither an authoritarian nor a cultist, but someone who thought the CIA was out of control.)
The "bug O'Brien" theory didn't make sense to a lot of people -- least of all Richard Nixon, whose initial reaction that the burglary made no sense was absolutely right. A hard-bitten man (and certainly no moralist about such things), Nixon reacted along the lines of "WTF?"
"(expletive deleted) Of course, I am not dumb and I will never forget when I heard about this (adjective deleted) forced entry and bugging. I thought, what in the hell is this? What is the matter with these people? Are they crazy? I thought they were nuts! A prank! But it wasn't! It wasn't very funny." -- Richard Nixon, February 28, 1973It wasn't the fact of the burglary that puzzled seasoned political analysts of the time so much as why. That was what led various freelance investigators to look more deeply at precisely what happened. While it is still not completely settled (and may never be) it's clear to me that the conventional Woodward and Bernstein/Washington Post theory (that the burglars targeted Larry O'Brien's office) was seriously flawed.
I realize that I certainly can't solve Watergate in a blog post. Even in a long blog post. The facts are laboriously complicated, but anyone who wants background about my skepticism can read my much-neglected Watergate blog. Again, Jim Hougan (a great writer BTW) was the first to really go back and explore the burglary details in his book Secret Agenda. (I recommend the Hougan book highly, along with Colodny and Gettlin's Silent Coup. People who don't want to buy out of print books can stream Barbara Newman's "The Key to Watergate" which was originally made for A&E's Investigative Reports series.)
Not that I'd expect Glenn Greenwald to actually sit down and ask serious questions about the burglary itself, but his recent endorsement of John Dean's book (in a post titled "John Dean and Authoritarian Cultism") speaks volumes about the diagnostic approach to demonization of people with dissenting (or even skeptical) views.
In 1991, as Dean recounts at length, he learned that 60 Minutes and Time Magazine were preparing to feature a new book, entitled Silent Coup, which claimed that Dean himself was the one who ordered the Watergate break-in. The book alleged that Dean's motive was that his wife, Maureen, had a connection to a Washington, DC call-girl operation and thus had knowledge of various sex scandals involving Democrats, and Dean sought to obtain documentation to use against them.Sorry to interrupt, but there's nothing absurd about it. Unless, of course, you think its inherently "absurd" to raise questions about hotly disputed historical matters.
Greenwald does not mention that it was Jim Hougan who first discovered the connection to the call girl operation. Nor does he disclose that there are serious historians who also think Hougan, Colodny, and Gettlin were right.
One such historian is Joan Hoff:
Joan Hoff, professor of history at Indiana University and co-editor of the Journal of Women’s History, is a specialist in twentieth-century American foreign policy and politics and in the legal status of American women. She was executive secretary of the Organization of American Historians from 1981 to 1989. She has been the recipient of numerous awards, includig the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians’ Article Prize and the Stuart L. Bernath Prize for the best book on American diplomacy. She is the author of several books including Law, Gender, and Injustice: A Legal History of U.S. Women and Herbert Hoover: Forgotten Progressive.When she delivered the 1993 Laurence F. Brewster Lecture, she explained why she thinks Hougan's and Colodny's hypothesis has merit. (For reasons of time and space, I'll spare readers from lengthy quotations.) My point is simply that the theory is not "absurd on its face."
Nor is it "right wing" -- despite Greenwald & Dean's continued protestations:
And once Dean vehemently denied these allegations, both 60 Minutes and Time investigated the claims and both decided not to run the story -- a noble decision which, in Time's case, led to the loss of the $50,000 it had paid for the rights to run an excerpt of the book.Sorry to interrupt again, but I think it's worth noting again that the call girl connection was neither a smear nor was it first made by "the right." But this is ignored, as our focus is supposed to be on "right-wing groups and personalities" who liked the book. Obviously, that makes the book becomes a right-wing "smear":
The book's publishers enlisted both right-wing follower G. Gordon Liddy and by-then-born-again Christian activist Charles Colson -- both of whom still hated Dean for his blasphemy in testifying truthfully against the President -- to promote the book and push its allegations against Dean.Yes, those "seemingly intelligent" people who dare ask questions about the Watergate burglary are not only authoritarian conservatives, but are part of a lynch mob seeking to destroy "enemies" of their "movement."
Colson is an authoritarian, and because he agreed with Colodny's theory, then anyone who agrees with Colodny's theory becomes a Colsonite authoritarian!
What sort of "movement" is this to which Watergate skeptics are said to belong? A right wing "authoritarian" movement compiling "enemies lists" as part of a plot to restore the deceased Richard Nixon? I'm tempted to ask just what is an "enemy," because I wonder whether the term is being used fairly, but that would require another essay on another topic. But I'm curious: does Glenn Greenwald have enemies of his own? Or does he think that the word "enemy" is a malevolent term used by people who disagree with him? I don't know. Hell, I don't even know right now whether I'm questioning the authority of Glenn Greenwald or John Dean. (Considering that the latter's disavowal of his famous Blind Ambition, I'd have to conclude -- however reluctantly -- that Glenn Greenwald is a better authority.)
Interestingly, Colodny (who, btw, writes for notorious right wing rags like Counterpunch) thinks that the call girl connection was part of a CIA coup orchestrated by General Al Haig and other right wingers. Jim Hougan thought so too -- and still thinks so:
In his June 2, 2005 article in the Post, outing his source, Woodward tells us that Felt regarded the Nixon White House as “corrupt…sinister…(a) cabal.” And, as the Post reporter makes clear, this was a view that Felt held prior to the Watergate break-in. Indeed, Woodward says, “Felt thought the Nixon team were Nazis.”You don't have to agree with Hougan to understand that skepticism over who did what (and why) in the Watergate affair is not a right wing lynch mob, but a genuine attempt to unravel a still-unexplained mystery. The fact that promoters of the Washington Post doctrine have to call all skeptics right wing nuts (especially the frantic conflation of Watergate skepticism and Holocaust denial), I think, evidences massive insecurity.
And while I still refuse to call it "projection," I hardly think it constitutes mental illness -- especially of the "authoritarian" variety -- to ask questions about things like the ongoing effort to hide a key to a particular desk.
Since when are we not supposed to question authority?
posted by Eric on 07.25.06 at 12:48 PM
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