Sunday, July 10, 2005


If the Couch Fits, Lie on It

The Australian reports on the Freudian conference in Melbourne.

After 20 years' study of individuals and groups traumatised by mass violence, [Vamik Volkan, emeritus professor of psychiatry at the University of Virginia] writes with insight about the leaders who choose to tame or inflame the traumas and tensions. Volkan focuses on large-group identity, from terrorist organisations to nations. He describes how thousands or millions of individuals, most of whom have never met, give up much of their separate identity, bonding to a strong sense of sameness.... Given the right (or wrong) circumstances, it kicks in with a vengeance. Groups intensify the feeling by agreeing on chosen glories and chosen traumas, often ancient or mythological, that tinpot despots, be they dictator or democratically elected, can easily manipulate. Inflaming, not taming.
"Chosen glories and chosen traumas." That certainly applies to the mythologized "9/11", as distinct from the real events of September 11, 2001. And consider how a certain tinpot despot chose to take advantage of that trauma:
Volkan cites many examples, including Saddam Hussein during the 1991 Gulf war. He depended heavily on chosen glories to galvanise support, identifying himself with Saladin, who defeated the Christian crusaders in the 12th century. This time around, you may recall George W. Bush talking up the invasion as a crusade while insisting he was on a mission from God. And we mustn't forget the mirror-image rhetoric of Osama bin Laden. He contrasts the US president, a classic narcissistic leader, with the founder of modern Turkey, the much rarer reparative leader who sought to encourage his followers' personal autonomy, to turn regression into progression.
As a long-ago psychology major, I didn't have a lot of use for Freudian analysis; but I have to admit that some of his concepts and terminology provide useful ways of describing the psychopathology of everyday politics, as it were. For example, Republicans demonstrate practically every day that projection isn't just for movie theaters. And have you ever noticed how George and Jeb can't talk about their mother without making some not-so-subtle jab?
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