To War! America’s National Psyche

11 Sep

I’m reproducing a set of notes I wrote up during the 2000 Presidential Election. I’m republishing them now in recognition of yet another turn in the long-spinning wheel of American mythology.

Everything is connected to everything else and the causal forces meeting in the historical present stretch back into the past without end. Figuring out where to start is not easy. My sense is that we need to focus our attention on the dissolution of the Soviet Empire in the late 1980s. That left the nation without a national scapegoat, thus radically altering the nation’s psycho-cultural landscape. We no longer had Ronald Reagan’s Evil Empire to kick around.

As some of you may know, my thinking on these matters has been strongly influenced by an essay Talcott Parsons published in 1947 on “Certain Primary Sources of Aggression in the Social Structure of the Western World”. Parsons argued that Western child-rearing practices generate a great deal of insecurity and anxiety at the core of personality structure. This creates an adult who has a great deal of trouble dealing with aggression and is prone to scapegoating. Inevitably, there are lots of aggressive impulses which cannot be followed out. They must be repressed. Ethnic scapegoating is one way to relieve the pressure of this repressed aggression. That, Parsons argued, is why the Western world is flush with nationalistic and ethnic antipathy. I suspect, in fact, that this dynamic is inherent in nationalism as a psycho-cultural phenomenon.

For the most part I have used Parsons, and others as well, in arguing about the nature of racism in the USA. While Africans were brought to this country for economic reasons it seems to me that during, say, the 19th century African Americans increasingly assumed a dual psychological role in the white psyche. On the one hand, they were a source of entertainment. On the other, they were convenient scapegoats, as became evident with the lynchings that emerged during Reconstruction and continued well into the last century. That is to say, African America served as a geographically internal target for the ethnic and nationalist antipathy Parsons discussed.

Thus we have the thesis in Klinkner and Smith, The Unsteady March (U. Chicago, 1999). They argue that African Americans have been able to move forward on civil rights only during periods where the nation faced an external threat – the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and the major wars of the first half of the 20th century. When the external danger had subsided, gains were lost. From my point of view, they’re arguing that, when external danger looms large and demands attention, the citizenry can focus aggression there and so ease up on the internal colony. Beyond this, of course, it becomes necessary to recruit from the colony to fight the external enemy, both physically and propagandistically – be kind to your black citizens when you fight the Nazis, etc.

Vietnam was the last major war of the Cold War period. As it receded into the past, a political backlash set in and affirmative action came under attack. That’s the situation we faced when the Soviet Empire collapsed. With the major external threat suddenly collapsed, there was a crisis of aggression – I’m reminded of the phrase “conservation of aggression” coined by Robert Wright. The fall of the Evil Empire deprived a great many people of an object for aggressive impulses. What then, happened to that aggression?

It got directed elsewhere. My sense is that the political rhetoric on a number of issues heated up in the wake of the fall: gun control, abortion, the arts, gays, affirmative action, violence in the media. A number of these issues come under the rubric of the so-called “culture wars”. Each of these issues was already on the political agenda, and had been there for some time.

Sexy music had been inspiring pulpit denunciations and legislative action since the early decades of the 20th century. Movies have been problematic since the beginning and the NAACP put itself on the political map by organizing protests against “Birth of a Nation.” But, it seems to me, that the scope of politicized cultural contest broadened. [If I’m correct, then this could be verified empirically by doing content analysis of periodicals, looking at opinion polls, crime rates, etc.]

Perhaps the most interesting redirection, however, was into the so-called War on Drugs. Political concern about drug use is not, of course, new. It goes back to Prohibition – which, was, of course, intimately linked with that objectionably sexy music – and got redirected by and in reaction to the counter-cultural 60s and 70s. However, it is my impression that the current effort ramped up in the wake of the Soviet collapse.

This war on drugs has had substantial material consequences: increased law enforcement and court activity, a considerable increase in the prison population and, of course, in the prison industry. Our prisons now have a relatively large population of non-violent offenders who are disproportionately black, taken off the voting rolls as felons, and available for labor in various prison-based enterprises. I do not know whether or not the increase in the economic “weight” of the prison sector is roughly equal to the losses suffered by the defense sector. I would, of course, like to know.

Regardless of how those numbers work out, my basic point is simply that the end of the Cold War changed the psycho-cultural system in a major way. Psycho-cultural aggression had to be redirected and much of it was redirected at targets within the country, rather than externally. That redirection is the central political phenomenon of the 90s and is responsible for much of the ugliness and programmatic futility of current politics.

Addendum 2014: Obviously the Arab world is a perfect target for this repressed aggression. We’ve got a long-standing and well-crafted Orientalist mythology of the exotic and crazy Arab Other. I fear we’re going to be banging on this nail for a long time.


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