I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers. . . or our national anthem.” So said Mike Pence, the US Vice-*resident, after walking out of a football match — when some players had “taken a knee” during the playing of the “Star Spangled Banner”. The Trump administration’s row with high-profile athletes might seem like an “only in America” moment. But similar arguments about national anthems are taking place in China, India and Europe.
These anthem rows are a symptom of a global ideological struggle between nationalist and internationalists. In the US, China and India, the militant defence of national hymns is justified by the new nationalists as simple, healthy patriotism. But a shrill focus on national anthems also has a disturbing side — since it often goes hand in hand with illiberalism at home, and aggression overseas.
Earlier this month, China’s National People’s Congress passed a law, making “insulting” the country’s national anthem an offence, punishable by up to three years in prison. The move is part of a growing vogue for displays of patriotism in China, as part of what President Xi Jinping calls the “great rejuvenation” of his people. It also reflects rising tensions between the government of mainland China and semi-autonomous Hong Kong. At recent football matches in Hong Kong, the Chinese anthem has been booed by anti-Beijing protesters.
The Indian version of this dispute was triggered by a supreme court ruling last year, directing that the national anthem be played before any film shown in a public theater. Supporters of the ruling argue that the anthem is an important glue in a multi-religious country that speaks hundreds of languages. Indian liberals worry that it reflects a rise in intolerant nationalism under Prime Minister, Narendra Modi — which is making life tougher for religious minorities and critics of the government. They also point to incidents of vigilantism in which cinema-goers, who failed to rise for the anthem, have been attacked.
A different kind of anthem controversy took place in France, when Emmanuel Macron celebrated his election victory, last May. The background music when the new president strode on stage was not the Marseillaise but Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” — the EU’s anthem. This was a deliberate rebuke to his defeated opponents in the nationalist and anti-EU, National Front.
The fact that Mr Macron and Mr Trump have taken very different positions in the anthem rows is significant. For the US and French presidents are currently the two most important spokesmen for rival visions of international politics.
In his speech at the UN in September, Mr Trump made the case for an international order based around “strong sovereign nations” — a phrase that he used repeatedly. The US president has also often attacked “globalism”, defined by his campaign as — “An economic and political ideology which puts allegiance to international institutions ahead of the nation state.”Ten days after Mr Trump’s speech, Mr Macron offered a very different worldview. In a lecture in Paris, he said that — “We can no longer turn inwards within national borders; this would be a collective disaster.” The French president saw his enemies as “nationalism, identitarianism, protectionism, isolationism.”
It would be easy to assume that Mr Macron’s internationalist message has more global support. But the Trumpian vision also has international adherents — from a network of politicians and intellectuals that can be termed the “nationalist international”.
Mr Trump’s nationalism is fired by a sense that America is in decline and can only recover, by getting tough with the outside world. Mr Xi’s nationalism is fuelled by a sense that China is on the rise, and can finally avenge historic humiliations. Those two rival visions could easily lead to US-China clashes in the Korean Peninsula, the South China Sea or at the World Trade Organisation.--Gideon Rachman@www.ft.com
In a recent article , Eric Li, a Shanghai-based commentator, argued that Xi’s China and Trump’s America, “have more in common than it appears”. Both leaders emphasise national sovereignty and are intent on pushing back against an “overly aggressive, one-size fits all universal order”. Mr Li argues that Mr Xi and Mr Trump have many potential soulmates in the anti-globalist camp — including leaders such as Vladimir Putin in Russia, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Mr Modi and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt, as well as Britain’s Brexiters. It is quite a list — underlining the extent to which nationalism is resurgent. The new nationalists argue that “strong sovereign nations” should be the basis of a stable, international order that rolls backs the excesses of a utopian and elitist “globalism”.
But there is something a little naive about the idea of peaceful coexistence between nationalists. Strongmen leaders may have a shared contempt for international bureaucrats and human-rights lawyers. But nationalism is often associated with disdain for the views and interests of foreigners. So, sooner or later, rival nationalisms are liable to come into conflict — and that is particularly the case with the US and China.
The New China 7 Leadership
Mr Trump’s nationalism is fired by a sense that America is in decline and can only recover, by getting tough with the outside world. Mr Xi’s nationalism is fuelled by a sense that China is on the rise, and can finally avenge historic humiliations. Those two rival visions could easily lead to US-China clashes in the Korean Peninsula, the South China Sea or at the World Trade Organisation.
In his Sorbonne speech, Mr Macron warned that rising nationalism could “destroy the peace we so blissfully enjoy”. Sadly, it seems unlikely that anybody in Washington or Beijing was paying much attention.
“When I hear the word ‘culture,’ I reach for my revolver.” This philistine wisecrack is often attributed to Air Marshal Hermann Goering, or some other Nazi notable. Benjamin Martin sets us straight on its source: the 1933 play Schlageter by the Nazi Party member Hanns Johst, in which a character says: “When I hear the word ‘culture’ I release the catch on my Browning.”
Martin’s illuminating book The Nazi-Fascist New Order for European Culture shows how badly astray this famous quip leads us: cultural concerns were in fact vital to the imperial projects of Hitler and Mussolini. We do not normally associate their violent and aggressive regimes with “soft power.” But the two dictators were would-be intellectuals—Adolf Hitler a failed painter inebriated with the music of Wagner, and Mussolini a onetime schoolteacher and novelist. Unlike American philistines, they thought literature and the arts were important, and wanted to weaponize them as adjuncts to military conquest. Martin’s book adds a significant dimension to our understanding of how the Nazi and Fascist empires were constructed.
German power and success gave the Nazi case particular salience. The special meaning of Kultur in Germans’ evaluation of themselves is an important part of the story. According to a famous essay by Norbert Elias, the meaning of Kultur for Germans is hardly comprehensible without reference to a particular historical development.*Kultur, he explains (along with Bildung, or education), denoted in pre-unification Germany those qualities that the intellectuals and professionals of the small, isolated German middle class claimed for themselves in response to the disdain of the minor German nobles who employed them: intellectual achievement, of course, but also simple virtues like authenticity, honesty, and sincerity.
German courtiers, by contrast, according to the possessors of Kultur, had acquired “civilization” from their French tutors: manners, social polish, the cultivation of appearances. As the German middle class asserted itself in the nineteenth century, the particular virtues of Kultur became an important ingredient in national self-definition. The inferior values of “civilization” were no longer attributed to an erstwhile French-educated German nobility, but to the French themselves and to the West in general.
By 1914, the contrast between Kultur and Zivilisation had taken on a more aggressively nationalist tone. During World War I German patriotic propaganda vaunted the superiority of Germany’s supposedly rooted, organic, spiritual Kultur over the allegedly effete, shallow, cosmopolitan, materialist, Jewish-influenced “civilization” of Western Europe. Martin’s book shows how vigorously the Nazis applied this traditional construct. Hitler invested considerable money and time in the 1930s, and even after World War II began, in an effort to take over Europe’s cultural organizations and turn them into instruments of German power. These projects had some initial success. In the end, however, they collapsed along with the military power they were designed to reinforce.
In a parallel and even less enduring effort, Mussolini’s Fascist regime tried to establish the primacy of Italian culture under the umbrella of Hitler’s conquests. Mussolini’s cultural executives, such as his Minister for Press and Propaganda Dino Alfieri, asserted that the Mediterranean and classical tradition of Italy was the proper foundation of a European “cultural Axis.” Having thrown in their lot definitively with Hitler, the Italians could hope to be the contemporary Greece to Germany’s new Rome, but the Nazi leaders never entertained the slightest doubt that German Kultur was the foundation stone of the “new cultural order” for Europe.
An extensive network of international cultural organizations already existed before Hitler came to power. They had been greatly expanded after 1919 in the orbit of the League of Nations. Hitler saw them cynically as instruments of French cultural influence and as a reinforcement of Allied hegemony. Just as he planned to overthrow the political system set up by the victorious Allies after World War I, he was determined to overthrow the democratic cultural network. He intended to replace it with his own organizations headquartered in Berlin and dedicated to spreading throughout Europe the Nazi conception of the unique racial character of each national culture.
The word “international” acquired a special meaning in its usage by Nazi and Fascist cultural officials. The Allies’ international cultural associations had rested on a set of liberal democratic assumptions: that works of art and literature should be evaluated by universal standards of quality; that masterpieces were the product of individual creativity; and that no national culture deserved hegemony over another. The Nazi and Fascist dictators reversed all of these assumptions. They measured the merit of works of art and literature by their significance within unique national cultural traditions. Masterpieces, in their view, grew out of community roots. And national cultural traditions were ranked in a natural hierarchy, with the German and Italian ones at the top.
Hitler concerned himself with cultural matters as soon as he became chancellor of Germany in January 1933. He purged the German section of PEN International of “leftist” and Jewish writers. When PEN International protested, Hitler dissolved the German section altogether at the end of 1933. During this dispute the president of the Italian PEN club, the provocateur Futurist intellectual Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, supported the German position. Thus from the earliest days, Nazi cultural projects proved capable of enlisting foreign support.
Hitler made his ambitions for German culture clear from the beginning. At a Nazi Party Congress on Culture in September 1933 he promised that the Nazi state would intervene more actively in cultural matters than the Weimar Republic had done, in order to make art an expression of the “hereditary racial bloodstock” and to transform artists into defenders of the German Volk.
Hitler left the daily tasks of his bid to reorganize European culture under German dominance to his propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels. Goebbels—another would-be intellectual and a failed novelist—threw his frenetic energy, his ideological passions, and a generous budget into spreading abroad the Nazis’ racialist and nationalist approach to the arts.
Disaster strikes when men do nothing about tyranny and abuses of power
Cinema was the Nazi leaders’ first cultural target. Goebbels and Hitler were as obsessed with movies as American adolescents are today with social media. Convinced that cinema was their era’s main engine of cultural influence, they tried to control filmmaking as far as their influence could reach. At the Venice Film Festival in 1935, at Goebbels’s instigation, delegates of twelve nations agreed to create an International Film Chamber (IFC) designed to establish a continent-wide system of film exchange and regulation. As the possessor of the continent’s largest and most powerful film industry, Germany became the dominant force in the IFC. Fascist Italy, however, assured for itself a strong second position by exploiting its considerable film-producing assets, such as the technologically advanced studios of Cinecittà and the Venice Film Festival, which continued to be the main venue of IFC activities.
The IFC was a genuinely European organization, and even had a French president in 1937. Its inspiration had been German, however, and its organizational form was less international than something Martin usefully calls “inter-national,” a federation of national arts organizations on the model of the Reich Film Chamber, which Goebbels had formed in July 1933 on corporatist principles. Corporatist doctrine required that capital, management, and labor abandon their separate advocacy groups and sit down together to find their common interests, alongside state representatives. Corporatism smothered internal conflict in film production and gave determining influence to the state rather than to the market.
Each IFC member nation was expected to have a national film organization similar to the Reich Film Chamber. Within Germany the Reich Film Chamber became the instrument through which the Nazi regime controlled an increasingly concentrated German film industry purged of Jews. In 1942, the largest production companies, such as UFA and Tobis, were merged into one state-controlled entity.
Benjamin Martin shows most interestingly that the Nazi and Fascist “inter-national” organizations had authentic appeal to some European intellectuals and arts executives who were not themselves Nazis or Fascists. These organizations promised material as well as intellectual advantages. The IFC provided access to a market of continental dimensions, a feature particularly attractive to European filmmakers who all suffered from the limited size of their national audiences. It also simplified thorny problems of cross-boundary payments and differing copyright laws.
The main role of the IFC was to combat the Hollywood menace. The dominance of American films had troubled European filmmakers and intellectuals from the beginning. By 1928 54 percent of all films shown in France, 72 percent in Britain, and 80 percent in Italy came from Hollywood. Already in the 1920s most European countries had imposed quotas on American films or limited them by reciprocity agreements. The respite given to European films by the arrival of “talkies” in 1929 had been brief, as expert dubbing soon allowed Hollywood films to predominate again. Many Europeans endorsed the IFC position that American films were trivial entertainment designed to make money, while European films were artistic creations that deserved protection. Although the British and Dutch refused to join, IFC membership extended by 1935 “from Belgium to Hungary [and] revealed a Europe,” according to Martin, “ready to accept German leadership.”
German military conquests early in World War II enabled the Nazis to tighten even further their control of European cinema. In August 1940 they banned American films altogether in the territories they occupied. A similar ban within Germany itself followed in 1941. The Fascist regime had already reduced the number of Hollywood films shown in Italy by the “Alfieri law” of 1938 that created a state monopoly with sole authority to buy and show foreign films (Hollywood’s four biggest studios withdrew from the Italian market in response). The unintended result of such protectionism was to give Hollywood films the allure of forbidden fruit and to prepare their triumphant return to Europe in 1945. In Jean-Pierre Melville’s Resistance film Army of Shadows, two underground leaders are smuggled out of France to consult personally with Free French leader General Charles de Gaulle. The first thing they want to do in London, after eating a filling meal, is to go see Gone with the Wind.
Beyond cinema, the Nazis meant to reorganize the whole range of German cultural activities along corporatist lines. The Reich Chamber of Culture contained subgroups for music, literature, theater, press, radio, and so on. The Nazis soon tried to extend the reach of these cultural corporations to the entire European continent, according to their geopolitical vision of a world divided into blocs, or “great spaces,” continent-scaled, self-sufficient economic systems aligned with the appropriate cultural associations protected by authoritarian states. Their European “New Order” was meant to be cultural as well as economic and political.
Music was a realm that Germans felt particularly qualified to dominate. But first the German national musical scene had to be properly organized. In November 1933 Goebbels offered Richard Strauss the leadership of a Reich Music Chamber. In June 1934 Strauss invited composers from thirteen countries to the annual meeting of the German Music Association in Wiesbaden. The delegates created a Permanent Council for International Cooperation among Composers.
The Permanent Council grew by exploiting an aesthetic rift in European musical culture. Since the early twentieth century a generation of gifted innovators had created new musical languages, such as Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique. Organized in the influential International Society for Contemporary Music, the avant-garde had come to have a powerful influence on the European musical scene. Traditional composers resented the modernists’ celebrity, and the Nazis (Mussolini remained more open to modernism) attracted conservative support by attacking the avant-garde as internationalist, rootless, and Jewish. In a famous speech in December 1934 Goebbels derided “an atonal noise maker,” by whom he was generally assumed to mean the composer Paul Hindemith (who was not Jewish). Goebbels organized in Düsseldorf in 1938 a presentation of “degenerate music” following the better-known 1937 exhibition of “degenerate art.”
Most of the composers who were affiliated with the Permanent Council, advocates generally of a national, rural, or folklorist approach to musical composition, are forgotten today. The council did draw some prestigious composers who were not really Nazi or Fascist, like Jean Sibelius and Albert Roussel. The presence of Richard Strauss, a onetime moderate modernist who resented the decline of his fame, gave legitimacy to the IFC. He continued to preside over it even after he had been removed from the Reich Music Chamber in 1935 in a dispute over his continued association with Stefan Zweig, who had written the libretto for his opera Die schweigsame Frau.
The Permanent Council’s attention to composers’ material problems was an additional attraction. These included inconsistencies among different national copyright codes, problems of international royalties payments, and droit moral—the right claimed by authors and composers to assure that their work was not presented in a deformed way or with offensive associations. Thus the Permanent Council was able to fill a busy schedule of concerts in various European capitals through the late 1930s.
The Nazi organization of European literature came later, but by similar tactics: a federation of national corporative bodies. German authors already gathered annually in Weimar. In connection with the 1941 Weimar authors’ meeting, Goebbels invited fifty foreign writers to visit the city of Goethe and Schiller at the expense of his Propaganda Ministry (an indulgence that caused many of them trouble after the war). The following October authors from fifteen European countries met at Weimar to found a European Writers’ Union.
As with music, the Nazis were able to attract writers outside the immediate orbit of the Nazi and Fascist parties by endorsing conservative literary styles against modernism, by mitigating copyright and royalty problems, and by offering sybaritic visits to Germany and public attention. Some significant figures joined, such as the Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun, winner of the 1920 Nobel Prize in literature, but most were minor writers who employed themes of nationalism, folk traditions, or the resonance of landscape. Martin unravels these multinational connections with clarity and precision, aided by research and reading in at least five European languages.
Painting and sculpture, curiously, do not figure in this account of the cultural fields that the Nazis and Fascists tried to reorganize “inter-nationally,” perhaps because they had not previously been organized on liberal democratic lines. Within Germany, of course, modernists could not show or sell their work, but this was not the case in occupied Paris, where Picasso and Kandinsky painted quietly in private and Jean Bazaine organized an exhibition with fellow modernists in 1941. Nazi cultural officials thought “degenerate” art appropriate for France.
Hitler made effective use of some German intellectuals’ resentment at being shut out of international cultural institutions after 1919. Martin seems to accept this sense of victimhood as legitimate, but it is difficult to square with the prestige of German cinema, music, and science in the 1920s.
Science would have made an interesting case study, a contrary one. Germany dominated the world of science before 1933. Germans won fifteen Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry, and physiology or medicine between 1918 and 1933, more than any other nation. Far from capitalizing on this major soft power asset, Hitler destroyed it by imposing ideological conformity and expelling Jewish scientists such as the talented nuclear physicist Lise Meitner. The soft power of science is fragile, as Americans may yet find out.
Without specifically setting out to do so, Martin casts interesting light on soft power and the conditions for its success. Nazis and Fascists turned out to be poor at it. Inherent contradictions undermined their attempts at cultural dominance. Dictatorial methods clashed with literary and artistic independence. Nazis had burned books, and both Germany and Italy had excluded prominent writers and artists. Their evident desire to put their own cultures first undermined their lip service to “inter-national” cooperation.
Within the “cultural Axis,” the relationship between Germany and Italy was strained. Martin was right to include the Italian case, even if Mussolini’s parallel bid for cultural power, like his parallel war, accomplished little. Hitler always accepted that Mussolini was his forerunner—the Duce’s bust stood on his desk—and while always ready to try to upstage him never let him drop. And so his “inter-national” organizations often attributed a strong second role to the Italians. But the Italians worked from within to subvert German claims to primacy.
A major obstacle to the success of Axis “inter-national” cultural organizations—especially with the Nazis—was their ideological narrowness. While an alignment with militant antimodernism attracted conservative writers and artists, these generated little excitement compared to the modernists. Hitler’s efforts to stem the mass appeal of Hollywood films and jazz only made them (as Martin suggests) more seductive and, in a final irony, prepared for the triumph of American music, jeans, and film in the postwar world by trying to make them taboo.
Soft power seems to have thrived best without direct military occupation. The global influence of French language, manners, and ideas began in the seventeenth century, and depended little on the conquests of Louis XIV and Napoleon. The ascendancy of the English language began with the commercial and financial power of the City of London in the nineteenth century, and owed little to conquest or colonial occupation, though those helped. The soft power of the United States, the most successful yet, spread far beyond direct American military presence. It prospered by appealing to mass popular tastes in music, dress, and entertainment, while the “cultural axis” aimed at conventional forms of high culture. The United States government did not ignore high culture—consider the activities of the United States Information Agency and the Congress for Cultural Freedom after World War II. But American soft power thrived mostly through the profit motive and by offering popular entertainment to the young.
Far from reaching for a revolver to deal with “culture,” Hitler (with Mussolini struggling behind) tried with at least some initial success to use international cultural organizations to enhance his military power. This story has been approached mostly, if at all, in individual national terms, but Martin has brought the whole Axis cultural project admirably into focus.
Norbert Elias, “Sociogenesis of the Antithesis Between Kultur and Zivilisation in German Usage,” in The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations, revised edition (Blackwell, 2000). ↩
Listen to Noam Chomsky–The Public Intellectual of My Generation
Noam Chomsky first involved himself in active political protest against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War in 1962, speaking on the subject at small gatherings in churches and homes. However, it was not until 1967 that he publicly entered the debate on United States foreign policy. In February he published a widely read essay in The New York Review of Books entitled “The Responsibility of Intellectuals“, in which he criticized the country’s involvement in the conflict; the essay was based on an earlier talk that he had given to Harvard’s Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. He expanded on his argument to produce his first political book, American Power and the New Mandarins, which was published in 1969 and soon established him at the forefront of American dissent. His other political books of the time included At War with Asia (1971), The Backroom Boys (1973), For Reasons of State (1973), and Peace in the Middle East? (1975), published by Pantheon Books. Coming to be associated with the American New Left movement, he nevertheless thought little of prominent New Left intellectuals Herbert Marcuse and Erich Fromm, and preferred the company of activists to intellectuals. Although The New York Review of Books did publish contributions from Chomsky and other leftists from 1967 to 1973, when an editorial change put a stop to it, he was virtually ignored by the rest of the mainstream press throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Along with his writings, Chomsky also became actively involved in left-wing activism. Refusing to pay half his taxes, he publicly supported students who refused the draft, and was arrested for being part of an anti-war teach-in outside the Pentagon. During this time, Chomsky, along with Mitchell Goodman, Denise Levertov, William Sloane Coffin, and Dwight Macdonald, also founded the anti-war collective RESIST. Although he questioned the objectives of the 1968 student protests, he gave many lectures to student activist groups; furthermore, he and his colleague Louis Kampf began running undergraduate courses on politics at MIT, independently of the conservative-dominated political science department. During this period, MIT’s various departments were researching helicopters, smart bombs and counterinsurgency techniques for the war in Vietnam and, as Chomsky says, “a good deal of [nuclear] missile guidance technology was developed right on the MIT campus”. As Chomsky elaborates, “[MIT was] about 90% Pentagon funded at that time. And I personally was right in the middle of it. I was in a military lab … the Research Laboratory for Electronics.” By 1969, student activists were actively campaigning “to stop the war research” at MIT. Chomsky was sympathetic to the students but he also thought it best to keep such research on campus and he proposed that it should be restricted to what he called “systems of a purely defensive and deterrent character”. During this period, MIT had six of its anti-war student activists sentenced to prison terms. Chomsky says MIT’s students suffered things that “should not have happened”, though he has also described MIT as “the freest and the most honest and has the best relations between faculty and students than at any other … [with] quite a good record on civil liberties”. In 1970 he visited the Vietnamese city of Hanoi to give a lecture at the Hanoi University of Science and Technology; on this trip he also toured Laos to visit the refugee camps created by the war, and in 1973 he was among those leading a committee to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the War Resisters League.
In 1971 Chomsky gave the Bertrand Russell Memorial Lectures at the University of Cambridge, which were published as Problems of Knowledge and Freedom later that year. He also delivered the Whidden Lectures at McMaster University, the Huizinga Lecture at Leiden University in the Netherlands, the Woodbridge Lectures at Columbia University, and the Kant Lectures at Stanford University. In 1971 he partook in a televised debate with French philosopher Michel Foucault on Dutch television, entitled Human Nature: Justice versus Power. Although largely agreeing with Foucault’s ideas, he was critical of post-modernism and French philosophy generally, believing that post-modern leftist philosophers used obfuscating language which did little to aid the cause of the working-classes and lambasting France as having “a highly parochial and remarkably illiterate culture”. Chomsky also continued to publish prolifically in linguistics, publishing Studies on Semantics in Generative Grammar (1972), an enlarged edition of Language and Mind (1972), and Reflections on Language (1975). In 1974 he became a corresponding fellow of the British Academy.
Albert, Michael (2006). Remembering Tomorrow: From the politics of opposition to what we are for, Seven Stories Press, pp. 97–99; C. P. Otero (1988). Noam Chomsky: Language and politics, Black Rose, p. 247.
White, G. D. (2000). Campus Inc.: Corporate power in the ivory tower. Prometheus Books, pp. 445–446.
Establishment Republicans have tried five ways to defeat or control Donald Trump, and they have all failed. Jeb Bush tried to outlast Trump, and let him destroy himself. That failed. Marco Rubio and others tried to denounce Trump by attacking his character. That failed. Reince Priebus tried to co-opt Trump to make him a more normal Republican. That failed.
Paul Ryan tried to use Trump; Congress would pass Republican legislation and Trump would just sign it. That failed. Mitch McConnell tried to outmaneuver Trump and Trumpism by containing his power and reach. In the Senate race in Alabama last week and everywhere else, that has failed.
Trumpist populist nationalism is still a rising force within the G.O.P., not a falling one. The Bob Corkers of the party are leaving while the Roy Moores are ascending. Trump himself is unhindered while everyone else is frozen and scared.
As a result, the Republican Party is becoming a party permanently associated with bigotry. It is becoming the party that can’t govern. And as a bonus, Trumpish recklessness could slide us into a war with North Korea that could leave millions dead.
The only way to beat Trump is to beat him philosophically. Right now the populists have a story to tell the country about what’s gone wrong. It’s a coherent story, which they tell with great conviction. The regular Republicans have no story, no conviction and no argument. They just hem and haw and get run over.
The Trump story is that good honest Americans are being screwed by aliens. Regular Americans are being oppressed by a snobbish elite that rigs the game in its favor. White Americans are being invaded by immigrants who take their wealth and divide their culture. Normal Americans are threatened by an Islamic radicalism that murders their children.
This is a tribal story. The tribe needs a strong warrior in a hostile world. We need to build walls to keep out illegals, erect barriers to hold off foreign threats, wage endless war on the globalist elites.
Somebody is going to have to arise to point out that this is a deeply wrong and un-American story. The whole point of America is that we are not a tribe. We are a universal nation, founded on universal principles, attracting talented people from across the globe, active across the world on behalf of all people who seek democracy and dignity.
The core American idea is not the fortress, it’s the frontier. First, we thrived by exploring a physical frontier during the migration west, and now we explore technological, scientific, social and human frontiers. The core American attitude has been looking hopefully to the future, not looking resentfully toward some receding greatness.
The hardship of the frontier calls forth energy, youthfulness and labor, and these have always been the nation’s defining traits. The frontier demands a certain sort of individual, a venturesome, hard-working, disciplined individual who goes off in search of personal transformation. From Jonathan Edwards to Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln to Frederick Douglass, Americans have always admired those who made themselves anew. They have generally welcomed immigrants who live this script and fortify this dynamism.
The Republican Party was founded as a free labor party. It believed in economic diversity, cultural cohesion and national greatness. The entrepreneurial economic philosophy was highly individualistic, but strong local communities built a web of nurturing relationships and shared biblical morality helped define common standards of character.
This American vision champions social mobility. The original Republicans were not for or against government, they were for government that sparked mobility; they were against government that enervated ambition. These Americans heavily invested in schools at a time when other nations were investing heavily in welfare states. These Americans built railroads and roads to increase mobility. They tore down social, racial and legal barriers to give poor boys and girls an open field and a fair chance.
Today, the main enemy is not aliens; it’s division — between rich and poor, white and black, educated and less educated, right and left. Where there is division there are fences. Mobility is retarded and the frontier is destroyed. Trumpist populists want to widen the divisions and rearrange the fences. They want to turn us into an old, settled and fearful nation.
The Republican Party is supposed to be the party that stokes dynamism by giving everybody the chance to venture out into the frontier of their own choosing — with education reform that encourages lifelong learning, with entitlement reform that spends less on the affluent elderly and more on the enterprising young families, with regulatory reform that breaks monopolies and rules that hamper start-ups, with tax reform that creates a fair playing field, with immigration reform that welcomes the skilled and the hungry.
It may be dormant, but this striving American dream is still lurking in every heart. It’s waiting for somebody who has the guts to say no to tribe, yes to universal nation, no to fences, yes to the frontier, no to closed, and yes to the open future, no to the fear-driven homogeneity of the old continent and yes to the diverse hopefulness of the new one.
A version of this op-ed appears in print on October 3, 2017, on Page A29 of the New York edition with the headline: A Philosophical Assault on Trumpism. Today’s Paper|Subscribe
Sigmund Freud almost didn’t make it out of Vienna in 1938. He left on June 4th, on the Orient Express, three months after the German Army entered the city. Even though the persecution of Viennese Jews had begun immediately—Edward R. Murrow, in Vienna for CBS radio when the Germans arrived, was an eyewitness to the ransacking of Jewish homes—Freud had resisted pleas from friends that he flee. He changed his mind after his daughter Anna was arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo. He was able to get some of his family out, but he left four sisters behind. All of them died in the camps, one, of starvation, at Theresienstadt; the others, probably by gas, at Auschwitz and Treblinka.
London was Freud’s refuge, and friends set him up in Hampstead, in a big house that is now the Freud Museum. On January 28, 1939, Virginia and Leonard Woolf came for tea. The Woolfs, the founders and owners of the Hogarth Press, had been Freud’s British publishers since 1924; Hogarth later published the twenty-four-volume translation of Freud’s works, under the editorship of Anna Freud and James Strachey, that is known as the Standard Edition. This was the Woolfs’ only meeting with Freud.
English was one of Freud’s many languages. (After he settled in Hampstead, the BBC taped him speaking, the only such recording in existence.) But he was eighty-two and suffering from cancer of the jaw, and conversation with the Woolfs was awkward. He “was sitting in a great library with little statues at a large scrupulously tidy shiny table,” Virginia wrote in her diary. “A screwed up shrunk very old man: with a monkey’s light eyes, paralyzed spasmodic movements, inarticulate: but alert.” He was formal and courteous in an old-fashioned way, and presented her with a narcissus. The stage had been carefully set.
The Woolfs were not easily impressed by celebrity, and certainly not by stage setting. They understood the transactional nature of the tea. “All refugees are like gulls with their beaks out for possible crumbs,” Virginia coolly noted in the diary. But many years later, in his autobiography, Leonard remembered that Freud had given him a feeling that, he said, “only a very few people whom I have met gave me, a feeling of great gentleness, but behind the gentleness, great strength. . . . A formidable man.” Freud died in that house on September 23, 1939, three weeks after the start of the Second World War.
Donald Trump is the benign version of the dominant personality. He is America’s man of the moment with a huge Freudian ego.
Hitler and Stalin, between them, drove psychoanalysis out of Europe, but the movement reconstituted itself in two places where its practitioners were welcomed, London and New York. A product of Mitteleuropa, once centered in cities like Vienna, Berlin, Budapest, and Moscow, psychoanalysis was thus improbably transformed into a largely Anglo-American medical and cultural phenomenon. During the twelve years that Hitler was in power, only about fifty Freudian analysts immigrated to the United States (a country Freud had visited only once, and held in contempt). They were some of the biggest names in the field, though, and they took over American psychiatry. After the war, Freudians occupied university chairs; they dictated medical-school curricula; they wrote the first two editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM). Psychoanalytic theory guided the treatment of hospital patients, and, by the mid-nineteen-fifties, half of all hospital patients in the United States were diagnosed with mental disorders.
Most important, psychoanalysis helped move the treatment of mental illness from the asylum and the hospital to the office. Psychoanalysis is a talk therapy, which meant that people who were otherwise functioning normally could avail themselves of treatment. The greater the number of people who wanted that kind of therapy, the greater the demand for therapists, and the postwar decades were a boom time for psychiatry. In 1940, two-thirds of American psychiatrists worked in hospitals; in 1956, seventeen per cent did. Twelve and a half per cent of American medical students chose psychiatry as a profession in 1954, an all-time high.A large percentage of them received at least some psychoanalytic training, and by 1966 three-quarters reported that they used the “dynamic approach” when treating patients.
Sigmund Freud and Bill Shakespeare
The dynamic approach is based on the cardinal Freudian principle that the sources of our feelings are hidden from us, that what we say about them when we walk into the therapist’s office cannot be what is really going on. What is really going on are things that we are denying or repressing or sublimating or projecting onto the therapist by the mechanism of transference, and the goal of therapy is to bring those things to light.
Amazingly, Americans, a people stereotypically allergic to abstract systems, found this model of the mind irresistible. Many scholars have tried to explain why, and there are, no doubt, multiple reasons, but the explanation offered by the anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann is simple: alternative theories were worse. “Freud’s theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory,” as she puts it. Freudian concepts were taken up by intellectuals, who wrote about cathexes, screen memories, and reaction formations, and they were absorbed into popular discourse. People who had never read a word of Freud talked confidently about the superego, the Oedipus complex, and penis envy.
Freud was recruited to the anti-utopian politics of the nineteen-fifties. Intellectuals like Lionel Trilling, in “Freud and the Crisis of Our Culture,” and Philip Rieff, in “Freud: The Mind of the Moralist,” maintained that Freud taught us about the limits on human perfectibility. Popular magazines equated Freud with Copernicus and Darwin. Claims were large. “Will the Twentieth Century go down in history as the Freudian Century?” asked the editor of a volume called “Freud and the Twentieth Century,” in 1957. “May not the new forms of awareness growing out of Freud’s work come to serve as a more authentic symbol of our consciousness and the quality of our deepest experience than the uncertain fruits of the fission of the atom and the new charting of the cosmos?”
One Professor excited about the possibilities was Frederick Crews. Crews received his Ph.D. from Princeton in 1958 with a dissertation on E. M. Forster. The dissertation explained what Forster thought by looking at what Forster wrote. It was plain-vanilla history-of-ideas criticism, and Crews found it boring. As an undergraduate, at Yale, he had fallen in love with Nietzsche, and Nietzsche had led him to Freud. By the time the Forster book came out, in 1962, he was a Professor at Berkeley, and his second book, “The Sins of the Fathers,” was a psychoanalytic study of Nathaniel Hawthorne. It came out in 1966, and, along with Norman Holland’s “Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare,” published the same year, was one of the pioneering works in psychoanalytic literary criticism. Crews began teaching a popular graduate seminar on the subject.
He also got involved in the antiwar movement on campus, serving as a co-chair of the Faculty Peace Committee. Like many people at Berkeley in those days (1967), he became radicalized, and he considered his interest in Freud to be part of his radicalism. He thought that Freud, as he later put it, “licensed a spirit of dogmatically rebellious interpretation.” In fact, Freud was dismissive of radical politics. He thought that the belief that social change could make people healthier or happier was deluded; that is the point of “Civilization and Its Discontents.” But Crews’s idea that Freudianism was somehow liberatory was widely shared in the sixties (although it usually required some tweaks to the theory, as administered, for example, by writers like Herbert Marcuse and Norman O. Brown).
In 1970, Crews published an anthology of essays promoting psychoanalytic criticism, “Psychoanalysis and Literary Process.” But he had started to get cold feet. He had soured on radical politics, too—by the early seventies, “Berkeley” had pretty much reverted to being “Cal,” a politically quiescent campus—and his experience with his graduate seminar had begun to make him think that there was something too easy about psychoanalytic criticism. Students would propose contradictory psychoanalytic readings, and they all sounded good, but it was just an ingenuity contest. There was no way to prove that one interpretation was truer than another. From this, it followed that what was going on in the analyst’s office might also be nothing more than a kind of interpretive freelancing. Psychoanalysis was beginning to look like a circular and self-justifying methodology.
Crews registered his growing disillusionment in a collection of essays that came out in 1975, “Out of My System.” He still believed that there were redeemable aspects to Freud’s thought, but he was on his way out, as a second essay collection, “Skeptical Engagements,” in 1986, made clear. In 1993, with the publication of a piece in The New York Review of Books called “The Unknown Freud,” he emerged as a full-blown critic of Freudianism and a leader in a group of revisionist scholars known as the Freud-bashers.
The article was a review of several books by revisionists. Psychoanalysis had already been discredited as a medical science, Crews wrote; what researchers were now revealing was that Freud himself was possibly a charlatan—an opportunistic self-dramatizer who deliberately misrepresented the scientific bona fides of his theories. He followed up with another article in the Review, on recovered-memory cases—cases in which adults had been charged with sexual abuse on the basis of supposedly repressed memories elicited from children—which he blamed on Freud’s theory of the unconscious.
Crews’ articles triggered one of the most rancorous highbrow free-for-alls ever run in a paper that has published its share of them. Letters of supreme huffiness poured into the Review, the writers lamenting that considerations of space prevented them from pointing out more than a handful of Crews’ errors and misrepresentations, and then proceeding to take up many column inches enumerating them.
People who send aggrieved letters to the Review often seem to have missed the fact that the Review always gives its writers the last word, and Crews availed himself of the privilege with relish and at length. He gave, on balance, better than he got. In 1995, he published his Review pieces as “The Memory Wars: Freud’s Legacy in Dispute.” Three years later, he edited “Unauthorized Freud: Doubters Confront a Legend,” an anthology of writings by Freud’s critics. Crews had retired from teaching in 1994, and is now an emeritus professor at Berkeley.
The arc of Freud’s American reputation tracks the arc of Crews’ career. Psychoanalytic theory reached the peak of its impact in the late fifties, when Crews was switching from history-of-ideas criticism to psychoanalytic criticism, and it began to fade in the late sixties, when Crews was starting to notice a certain circularity in his graduate students’ papers. Part of the decline had to do with social change. Freudianism was a big target for writers associated with the women’s movement; it was attacked as sexist (justifiably) by Betty Friedan in “The Feminine Mystique” and by Kate Millett in “Sexual Politics,” as it had been, more than a decade earlier, by Simone de Beauvoir in “The Second Sex.”
Jean-Paul Sartre with Simone de Beauvoir–Two Beautiful Minds of France
Psychoanalysis was also taking a hit within the medical community. Studies suggesting that psychoanalysis had a low cure rate had been around for a while. But the realization that depression and anxiety can be regulated by medication made a mode of therapy whose treatment times reached into the hundreds of billable hours seem, at a minimum, inefficient, and, at worst, a scam.
Managed-care companies and the insurance industry certainly drew that conclusion, and the third edition of the DSM, in 1980, scrubbed out almost every trace of Freudianism. The third edition was put together by a group of psychiatrists at Washington University, where, it is said, a framed picture of Freud was mounted above a urinal in the men’s room. In 1999, a study published in American Psychologist reported that “psychoanalytic research has been virtually ignored by mainstream scientific psychology over the past several decades.”
Meanwhile, the image of Freud as a lonely pioneer began to erode as well. That image had been carefully curated by Freud’s disciples, especially by Freud’s first biographer, the Welsh analyst Ernest Jones, who was a close associate. (He had flown to Vienna after the Nazis arrived to urge Freud to flee.) Jones’s three-volume life came out in the nineteen-fifties. But the image originated with, and was cultivated by, Freud himself. Even his little speech for the BBC, in 1938, is about the heavy price he has paid for his findings (he calls them “facts”) and his struggle against continued resistance to them.
In the nineteen-seventies, historians like Henri Ellenberger and Frank Sulloway pointed out that most of Freud’s ideas about the unconscious were not original, and that his theories relied on outmoded concepts from nineteenth-century biology, like the belief in the inheritability of acquired characteristics (Lamarckianism). In 1975, the Nobel Prize-winning medical biologist Peter Medawar called psychoanalytic theory “the most stupendous intellectual confidence trick of the twentieth century.”
One corner of Anglo-American intellectual life where Freudianism had always been regarded with suspicion was the philosophy department. A few philosophers, like Stanley Cavell, who had an interest in literature and Continental thinkers took Freud up. But to philosophers of science the knowledge claims of psychoanalysis were always dubious. In 1985, one of them, Adolf Grünbaum, at the University of Pittsburgh, published “The Foundations of Psychoanalysis,” a dauntingly thorough exposition designed to show that, whatever the foundations of psychoanalysis were, they were not scientific.
Revisionist attention also turned to Freud’s biography. The lead bloodhound on this trail was Peter Swales, a man who once called himself “the punk historian of psychoanalysis.” Swales never finished high school; in the nineteen-sixties, he worked as a personal assistant to the Rolling Stones. That would seem a hard gig to bail on, but he did, and, around 1972, he got interested in Freud and decided to devote himself to unearthing anything and everything associated with Freud’s life. (Swales is one of the two figures—the other is Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson—profiled in Janet Malcolm’s smart and entertaining report on the Freud revisionists, “In the Freud Archives,” published in 1984.)
Swales’s most spectacular claim was that Freud impregnated his sister-in-law, Minna, arranged for her to have an abortion, and then encoded the whole affair in a fictitious case history—a Sherlockian story that was almost too good to check (though some corroborating evidence was later dug up). Swales and other researchers were also able to show that Freud consistently misrepresented the outcomes of the treatments he based his theories on. In the case of one of the only patients whose treatment notes Freud did not destroy, Ernst Lanzer—the Rat Man—it is clear that he misrepresented the facts as well. In a study of the forty-three treatments about which some information survives, it turned out that Freud had broken his own rules for how to conduct an analysis, usually egregiously, in all forty-three.
In 1983, a British researcher, E. M. Thornton, published “Freud and Cocaine,” in which she argued that Freud, who early in his career was a champion of the medical uses of cocaine (then a legal and popular drug), was effectively addicted to it in the years before he wrote “The Interpretation of Dreams.” Freud treated a friend, Ernst Fleischl von Marxow, with cocaine to cure a morphine habit, with the result that Fleischl became addicted to both drugs and died at the age of forty-five. Thornton suggested that Freud was often high on cocaine when he wrote his early scientific articles, which accounts for their sloppiness with the data and the recklessness of their claims.
By 1995, enough evidence of the doubtfulness of psychoanalysis’s scientific credentials and enough questions about Freud’s character had accumulated to enable the revisionists to force the postponement of a major exhibition devoted to Freud at the Library of Congress, on the ground that the show presented psychoanalysis in too favorable a light. Crews called it an effort “to polish up the tarnished image of a business that’s heading into Chapter 11.” The exhibition had to be redesigned, and it did not open until 1998.
That year, in an interview with a Canadian philosophy professor, Todd Dufresne, Crews was asked whether he was ready to call it a day with Freud. “Absolutely,” he said. “After almost twenty years of explaining and illustrating the same basic critique, I will just refer interested parties to ‘Skeptical Engagements,’ ‘The Memory Wars,’ and ‘Unauthorized Freud.’ Anyone who is unmoved by my reasoning there isn’t going to be touched by anything further I might say.” He spoke too soon.
Crews seems to have grown worried that although Freud and Freudianism may look dead, we cannot be completely, utterly, a hundred per cent sure. Freud might be like the Commendatore in “Don Giovanni”: he gets killed in the first act and then shows up for dinner at the end, the Stone Guest. So Crews spent eleven years writing “Freud: The Making of an Illusion” (Metropolitan), just out—a six-hundred-and-sixty-page stake driven into its subject’s cold, cold heart.
The new book synthesizes fifty years of revisionist scholarship, repeating and amplifying the findings of other researchers (fully acknowledged), and tacking on a few additional charges. Crews is an attractively uncluttered stylist, and he has an amazing story to tell, but his criticism of Freud is relentless to the point of monomania. He evidently regards “balance” as a pass given to chicanery, and even readers sympathetic to the argument may find it hard to get all the way through the book. It ought to come with a bulb of garlic.
The place where people interested in Freud’s thought usually begin is “The Interpretation of Dreams,” which came out in 1899, when Freud was forty-three. Crews doesn’t get to that book until page 533. The only subsequent work he discusses in depth is the so-called Dora case, which was based on an (aborted) treatment that Freud conducted in 1900 with a woman named Ida Bauer, and which he published in 1905, as “Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria.” Crews touches briefly on the other famous case histories Freud brought out before the First World War—the Rat Man, the Wolf Man, Little Hans, the analysis of Daniel Paul Schreber, and the book on Leonardo da Vinci. The hugely influential works of social psychology that Freud went on to write—“Totem and Taboo,” “The Future of an Illusion,” “Civilization and Its Discontents”—are largely ignored.
The “illusion” in Crews’ subtitle isn’t Freudianism, though. It’s Freud. For many years, Freud was written about as an intrepid scientist who dared to descend into the foul rag-and-bone shop of the mind, and who emerged as the embodiment of a tragic wisdom—a man who could face up to the terrible fact that a narcissus is never just a narcissus, that underneath the mind’s trapdoor is a snake pit of desire and aggression, and, knowing all this, was still able to take tea with his guests. In Yeats’s line, those ancient, glittering eyes were gay. This is, obviously, the reputation the Woolfs carried with them when they went to meet Freud in 1939.
As Crews is right to believe, this Freud has long outlived psychoanalysis. For many years, even as writers were discarding the more patently absurd elements of his theory—penis envy, or the death drive—they continued to pay homage to Freud’s unblinking insight into the human condition. That persona helped Freud to evolve, in the popular imagination, from a scientist into a kind of poet of the mind. And the thing about poets is that they cannot be refuted. No one asks of “Paradise Lost”: But is it true? Freud and his concepts, now converted into metaphors, joined the legion of the undead.
Is there anything new to say about this person? One of the occasions for Crews’s book is the fairly recent emergence of Freud’s correspondence with his fiancée, Martha Bernays. Freud got engaged in 1882, when he was twenty-six, and the engagement lasted four years. He and Martha spent most of that time in different cities, and Freud wrote to her virtually every day. Some fifteen hundred letters survive. Crews makes a great deal of the correspondence, and he finds much to disapprove of.
Who would want to be judged by letters sent to a lover? What the excerpts that Crews quotes seem to show us is an immature and unguarded young man who is ambitious and insecure, boastful and needy, ardent and impatient—all the ways people tend to come across in love letters. Freud makes remarks like “I intend to exploit science instead of allowing myself to be exploited by it.” Crews takes this to expose Freud’s mercenary attitude toward his vocation. But young people want to make a living. That’s why they have vocations. The reason for the prolonged engagement was that Freud couldn’t afford to marry. It’s not surprising that he would have wanted to assure his fiancée that his eyes were ever on the prize.
Freud mentions cocaine often in the letters. He used it to get through stressful social situations, but he also appreciated its benefits as an aphrodisiac, and Crews quotes from several letters in which he teases Martha about its effects. “Woe to you, little princess, when I come,” he writes in one. “I will kiss you quite red and feed you quite plump. And if you are naughty you will see who is stronger, a gentle little girl who doesn’t eat or a big wild man with cocaine in his body.” Crews’ gloss: Freud “conceived of his chemically eroticized self not as the affectionate companion of a dear person but as a powerful mate who would have his way, luxuriating in the crushing of maidenly reluctance.” (Freud, incidentally, was a small man, five feet seven inches. He was taller than Martha, but not by much. The “big wild man” was a joke.)
Freud would be the last person to have grounds for objecting to a biographer’s interest in his sex life, but Crews’ claims in this area are often speculation. During his engagement, for example, Freud spent four months studying in Paris, where he sometimes suffered from anxiety. “It is easy to picture how Freud’s agitation must have been heightened by the daily parade of saucy faces and swaying hips that he witnessed during his strolls,” Crews observes. Crews is confident that Freud, during his separation from Martha, masturbated regularly, “making himself sick with guilt over it” (something he says Freud’s biographers covered up). He also suspects that Freud had sex with a prostitute, and was therefore not a virgin when, at the age of thirty, he finally got married. Noting (as others have) the homoerotic tone in Freud’s letters to and about men he was close to—Fleischl and, later, Wilhelm Fliess—Crews suggests that Freud “wrestled with homosexual impulses.”
Let’s assume that Freud used cocaine as an anxiolytic and aphrodisiac. That he had an eye for sexy women. That he masturbated, solicited a prostitute, shared he-man fantasies with his girlfriend, and got crushes on male friends. Who cares? Human beings do these things. Even if Freud had sex with Minna Bernays—so what? The standard revisionist hypothesis is that the sex took place on trips that the two took together without Martha, of which, as Crews points out, there were a surprising number. But Crews imagines assignations in the family home in Vienna as well. He notes that Minna’s bedroom was in a far corner of the house, meaning that “the nocturnal Sigmund could have visited it with impunity in predawn hours.” Could he have? Apparently. Should he have? Probably not. Did he, in fact? No one knows. So why fantasize about it? A Freudian would suspect that there is something going on here.
One thing that’s going on is straightforward enough: this is internecine business in the Freud wars. Some Freud scholar floated the suggestion that since Minna’s bedroom was next to Freud and Martha’s, there would have been few opportunities for hanky-panky. Consistent with his policy of giving scoundrels no quarter, Crews is determined to blow that suggestion out of the water. He is on a crusade to debunk what he calls “Freudolatry,” the cult of Freud constructed and maintained by the “home-team historians.” These include the “house biographer” Ernest Jones, the “gullible” Peter Gay, and the “loyalists” George Makari and Élisabeth Roudinesco. (The English translation of Roudinesco’s “Freud: In His Time and Ours” was published by Harvard last fall.)
In Crew’s view, these people have created a Photoshopped image of superhuman scientific probity and moral rectitude, and it’s important to take their hero down to human size—or maybe, in compensation for all the years of hype, a size or two smaller. Their Freud, fully cognizant of his illicit desires, stops at his sister-in-law’s bedroom door, for he knows that sublimation of the erotic drives is the price men pay for civilization. Crews’ Freud just walks right in. (In either account, civilization somehow survives.)
For readers with less skin in the Freud wars, the question is: What is at stake? And the answer has to be Freudianism—the theory itself and its post-clinical afterlife. Although Freud renounced his early work on cocaine, Crews examines it carefully, and he shows that, from the beginning, Freud was a lousy scientist. He fudged data; he made unsubstantiated claims; he took credit for other people’s ideas. Sometimes he lied. A lot of people in the late nineteenth century believed that cocaine might be a miracle drug, and Crews may be a little unfair when he tries to pin much of the blame for the later epidemic of cocaine abuse on Freud. Still, even starting out, Freud showed himself to be a man who did not have much in the way of professional scruples. The fundamental claim of the revisionists is that Freud never changed. It was bogus science all the way. And the central issue for most of them is what is known as the seduction theory.
The principal reason psychoanalysis triumphed over alternative theories and was taken up in fields outside medicine, like literary criticism, is that it presented its findings as inductive. Freudian theory was not a magic-lantern show, an imaginative projection that provided us with powerful metaphors for understanding the human condition. It was not “Paradise Lost”; it was science, a conceptual system wholly derived from clinical experience.
For Freudians and anti-Freudians alike, the key to this claim is the fate of the seduction theory. According to the official narrative, when Freud began working with women diagnosed with hysteria, in the eighteen-nineties, his patients reported being sexually molested as children, usually by their fathers and usually when they were under the age of four. In 1896, Freud delivered a paper announcing that, having completed eighteen treatments, he had concluded that sexual abuse in infancy was the source of hysterical symptoms. This became known as the seduction theory.
The paper was greeted with derision. Richard von Krafft-Ebing, the leading sexologist of the day, called it “a scientific fairy tale.” Freud was discouraged. But, in 1897, he had a revelation, which he reported in a letter to Fliess that became canonical. Patients were not remembering actual molestation, he realized; they were remembering their own sexual fantasies. The reason was the Oedipus complex. From infancy, all children have aggressive and erotic feelings about their parents, but they repress those feelings out of fear of punishment. For boys, the fear is of castration; girls, as they are traumatized eventually to discover, are already castrated. (“Castration” in Freud means amputation.)
In Freud’s hydraulic model of the mind, these forbidden wishes and desires are psychic energies seeking an outlet. Since they cannot be expressed or acted upon directly—we cannot kill or have sex with our parents—they emerge in highly censored and distorted forms as images in dreams, slips of the tongue, and neurotic symptoms. Freud claimed his clinical experience taught him that, by the method of free association, patients could uncover what they had repressed and achieve some relief. And so psychoanalysis was born.
This narrative was challenged by Jeffrey Masson, whose battle with the Freud establishment is the main subject of Janet Malcolm’s book. In “The Assault on Truth,” in 1984, Masson argued that, panicked by the reaction to his hysteria paper, Freud came up with the theory of infantile sexuality as a way of covering up his patients’ sexual abuse.
But there turned out to be two problems with the official narrative about the seduction theory, and Masson’s was not one of them. The first problem is that the chronology is a retrospective reconstruction. Freud did not abandon the seduction theory after 1897, he did not insist on the centrality of the Oedipus complex until 1908, and so on. Various emendations had to be discreetly made in the Standard Edition, and in the edition of Freud’s correspondence with Fliess, for the record to become consistent with the preferred chronology.
That is the minor problem. The major problem, according to the revisionists, is that there were no cases. Contrary to what Freud claimed and what Masson assumed, none of Freud’s subsequent patients spontaneously told him that they had been molested—those eighteen cases did not exist—and no patients subsequently reported having Oedipal wishes. Knowing of his reputation as sex-obsessed, some of Freud’s patients produced the kind of material they knew he wanted to hear, and a few appear to have been deliberately gaming him. In other cases, Freud badgered patients into accepting his interpretations, and they either gave in, like the Rat Man, or left treatment, like Dora. If your analyst tells you that you are in denial about wanting to sleep with your father, what are you going to do? Deny it?
Ever since he stopped teaching his Berkeley seminar, Crews has complained about the suggestibility of the psychoanalytic method of free association. It replaced hypnosis as a way of treating hysterical patients, but it wasn’t much better. That is why Crews wrote about the recovered-memory cases, in which investigators seem to have fed children the memories they eventually “recovered.” How effective a therapist Freud was is disputed—many people travelled to Vienna to be analyzed by him. But Crews believes that Freud never had “a single ex-patient who could attest to the capacity of the psychoanalytic method to yield the specific effects that he claimed for it.”
One response to the assault on psychoanalysis is that even if Freud mostly made it up, and even if he was a poor therapist himself, psychoanalysis does work for some patients. But so does placebo. Many people suffering from mood disorders benefit from talk therapy and other interpersonal forms of treatment because they respond to the perception that they are being cared for. It may not matter very much what they talk about; someone is listening.
People also find appealing the idea that they have motives and desires they are unaware of. That kind of “depth” psychology was popularized by Freudianism, and it isn’t likely to go away. It can be useful to be made to realize that your feelings about people you love are actually ambivalent, or that you were being aggressive when you thought you were only being extremely polite. Of course, you shouldn’t have to work your way through your castration anxiety to get there.
Still, assuming that psychoanalysis was a dead end, did it set psychiatry back several generations? Crews has said so. “If much of the twentieth century has indeed belonged to Freud,” he told Todd Dufresne, in 1998, “then we lost about seventy years worth of potential gains in knowledge while befuddling ourselves with an essentially medieval conception of the ‘possessed’ mind.” The comment reflects an attitude present in a lot of criticism of psychoanalysis, Crews’ especially: an idealization of science.
Since the third edition of the DSM, the emphasis has been on biological explanations for mental disorders, and this makes psychoanalysis look like a detour, or, as the historian of psychiatry Edward Shorter called it, a “hiatus.” But it wasn’t as though psychiatry was on solid medical ground when Freud came along. Nineteenth-century science of the mind was a Wild West show. Treatments included hypnosis, electrotherapy, hydrotherapy, full-body massage, painkillers like morphine, rest cures, “fat” cures (excessive feeding), seclusion, “female castration,” and, of course, institutionalization. There was also serious interest in the paranormal. The most prevalent nineteenth-century psychiatric diagnoses, hysteria and neurasthenia, are not even recognized today. That wasn’t “bad” science. It was science. Some of it works; a lot of it does not. Psychoanalysis was not the first talk therapy, but it was the bridge from hypnosis to the kind of talk therapy we have today. It did not abuse the patient’s body, and if it was a quack treatment it was not much worse, and was arguably more humane, than a lot of what was being practiced.
Nor did psychoanalysis put a halt to somatic psychiatry. During the first half of the twentieth century, all kinds of medical interventions for mental disorders were devised and put into practice. These included the administration of sedatives, notably chloral, which is addictive, and which was prescribed for Virginia Woolf, who suffered from major depression; insulin-induced comas; electroshock treatments; and lobotomies. Despite its frightful reputation, electroconvulsive therapy is an effective treatment for severe depression, but most of the other treatments in use before the age of psychopharmaceuticals were dead ends. Even today, in many cases, we are basically throwing chemicals at the brain and hoping for the best. Hit or miss is how a lot of progress is made. You can call it science or not.
People write biographies because they hope that lives have lessons. That’s what Crews has done. He believes that the story of Freud’s early life has something to tell us about Freudianism, and although he insists on playing the part of a hanging judge, much of what he has to say about the slipperiness of Freud’s character and the factitiousness of his science is persuasive. He is, after all, building on top of a mountain of research on those topics.
Crews does bring what appears to be a novel charge (at least these days) against psychoanalysis. He argues that it is anti-Christian. By promulgating a doctrine that makes “sexual gratification triumphant over virtuous sacrifice for heaven,” he says, Freud “meant to overthrow the whole Christian order, earning payback for all of the bigoted popes, the sadists of the Inquisition, the modern promulgators of ‘blood libel’ slander, and the Catholic bureaucrats who had held his professorship hostage.” Freud set out to “pull down the temple of Pauline law.”
Crews suggests that this is why the affair with Minna was significant. If it did happen, it was right before Freud wrote “The Interpretation of Dreams,” the real start of Freudianism. Forbidden sex could have given him the confidence he needed to take the extreme step into mind reading. “To possess Minna,” Crews says, “could have meant, first, to commit symbolic incest with the mother of God; second, to ‘kill’ the father God by means of this ultimate sacrilege; and third, to nullify the authority both of Austria’s established church and of its Vatican parent—thereby, in Freud’s internal drama, freeing his people from two millennia of religious persecution.” Then I guess he didn’t just walk right in.
It all sounds pretty Freudian! Where is it coming from? This idol-smashing Freud is radically different from the Freud of writers like Trilling and Rieff, who saw him as the enduring reminder of the futility of imagining that improving the world can make human beings happier. And it is certainly not how Freud presented himself. “I have not the courage to rise up before my fellow-men as a prophet,” he wrote at the end of “Civilization and Its Discontents,” “and I bow to their reproach that I can offer them no consolation: for at bottom, that is what they are all demanding—the wildest revolutionaries no less passionately than the most virtuous believers.”
Crew’s idea that Freud’s target was Christianity appears to be a late fruit of his old undergraduate fascination with Nietzsche. Crews apparently once saw Freud as a Nietzschean critic of life-denying moralism, a heroic Antichrist dedicated to liberating human beings from subservience to idols they themselves created. Is his current renunciation a renunciation of his own radical youth? Is his castigation of Freud really a form of self-castigation? We don’t need to go there. But since humanity is not liberated from its illusions yet, if that’s what Freud was really all about, he is still undead.
*Mark S. Weiner is the author of The Rule of the Clan, winner of the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order. In 2015, he was a Fulbright Scholar in the Department of Legal Philosophy of the University of Salzburg.
Bannon and the destruction of the liberal order
Stephen Bannon may be out, but don’t breathe a sigh of relief. His exit poses a new, more fundamental danger for liberals worldwide. With the departure of the Trump administration’s foremost court intellectual, liberals may be tempted to maintain the strategic tack they took during the presidential campaign, when they criticized Donald Trump mainly for his temperament, not his ideas, and by implication characterized his followers on the same basis.
Such criticism is understandable but ultimately self-defeating, because it subverts the very basis of the liberal, open society famously defined by Karl Popper: critical, scientific engagement at the level of ideas.
What’s more, failing to recognize what Bannon called “the Trump Presidency that we fought for and won” as a philosophical movement means missing an opportunity to develop liberalism’s core values in the context of our own time. Forging a path between elite managerialism and authoritarian populism – the daunting task of liberalism for our age – requires knowing precisely where we are starting.
In this light, now is a crucial moment to reflect upon Bannon’s worldview – especially his philosophy of history. Trumpism, as a hostile takeover of the Republican Party, was built from the start on an elegiac slogan: “Make America Great Again.” Temporality was at the core of its campaign brand, guided by nostalgia for “the good old days.” Bannon has sought to develop this brand into a robust popular historical consciousness, and his exit from the administration will only liberate him from the constraints of actually existing institutions.
Abundant evidence of Bannon’s views about the nature of historical change are found in his documentary film Generation Zero (2010), which in retrospect looks like a playbook for the 2017 campaign.
The film argues that the 2008 financial crisis was caused by the liberalization of American moral values during the 1960s, when the Baby Boomers’ narcissism led to a culture of political graft and economic greed, underwritten by the marriage of government and business elites. These elites socialized the Baby Boomers’ debts and foisted them onto future generations and the forgotten middle class, leading to economic carnage and lost faith in public institutions. From this nadir, Bannon explains, America will be either destroyed or renewed.
The film’s narrative structure, particularly its driving movement toward cataclysm and rebirth, is provided by William Strauss and Neil Howe’s The Fourth Turning (1997), a best-selling work of sociology. Many commentators have noted with alarm the influence of the book’s apocalyptic tone on Bannon’s worldview. But more troubling is the book’s essentially Jungian argument about the mechanism of historical change.
More precisely, the book superimposes Jungian psychological archetypes onto the view, drawn from historians such as Arnold Toynbee, that history follows predictable, recurring patterns. According to Strauss and Howe, a finite set of mythic archetypes characterizes not only individuals but also the generations to which they belong. Their differing qualities provide the engine for inter-generational conflict and historical change.
Just as there are four stages of an individual human life, so there are four stages within a hundred-year era. A “Hero” generation, like that which fought World War II, is inevitably followed by an “Artist” generation, which necessarily gives rise to a moralistic “Prophet” generation that makes way for a “Nomad” generation – which in turn gives birth to a new generation of Heroes.
The balance and interaction between these generations over time leads a society to undergo a predictable set of “turnings,” from an optimistic “High” to a rebellious “Awakening,” and from there through a corrosive “Unraveling” leading to a fraught “Crisis,” which ends with a new “High.” The Crisis stage always hits American society particularly hard, because the United States has so profoundly embraced a linear understanding of time. Yet come it will, and when it does, America will either collapse or be made great again.
For Strauss and Howe, history is cyclical, its content is mythic, and its study leads to prophesy. This perspective, they argue, offers a number of concrete personal benefits, assuming that readers can unlearn the teachings of linear history (including, bracingly, “obsessive fear of death”). Most important, it offers readers “a more personal connection with the past and future,” and the feeling of being “active participants in a destiny that is both positive and plausible.” It offers readers a sense of control.
Popper had a name for such predictive historical thinking, so contrary to the scientific method. He called it “historicism.” His foundational contribution to modern liberalism, The Open Society and its Enemies (1945), is an analysis of historicism’s roots and implications for liberal democracy. In other words, our use today of the very term “open society” derives from a withering critique of the philosophy of history Bannon embraces.
Popper viewed Hegel as the main source of historicism in the modern era. But he traces the historicist attitude back to Plato, whose anti-democratic ideologies of permanent social hierarchy he interprets as a reaction to the breakdown of Greek tribalism – an effort to recover lost certainties.
Indeed, Popper views all forms of contemporary historicism, even the “remarkable” work of Toynbee himself, as an effort to resuscitate tribalism’s “closed society.” For Popper, prophetic history represents a misguided philosophical reaction against freedom, change, and individualism.
In the midst of World War II and the fight against fascism, Popper offered an alternative to the neo-tribalism of historicism: science and rationalist philosophy, or “the tradition of challenging theories and myths and of critically discussing them.” And he provided a view of historical change that rejects inevitability. Only this humane response to tribalism’s breakdown, he asserted, could set the world free and maintain its liberty.
Popper’s analysis is as important today as it was in his own time. Following Bannon’s departure, the worst thing liberals could do is to ignore Trumpism’s animating principles – for by doing so, they will subvert their own.