Commentary Magazine

The Fears Men Live By, by Selma Hirsh

A Handbook on Prejudice
by Dennis H. Wrong
The Fears Men Live By. By Selma Hirsh. Harper. 164 pp. $2.75.

Anti-Semitism may very well be endemic to rapidly changing industrial societies which remain at least nominally Christian in outlook. Yet its utility as a political weapon has diminished greatly since World War II. Even in a country as culturally and socially homogeneous as France, Pierre Poujade’s anti-Semitic outbursts appear to have hindered rather than helped his movement. And in the United States the sales of Marjorie Morningstar, Look’s much publicized article on American Jews, and the hypersensitivity of right-wing demagogues like McCarthy to charges of anti-Semitism are among the signs of the times. Perhaps it is just that, as Richard Hofstadter has put it, standards of hating are rising along with standards of living, so that demagogues eager to win a national following arouse a greater response by attacking groups that are considerably more powerful than ethnic or religious minorities, such as Harvard University, the Ford Foundation, and the State Department.

Mrs. Hirsh’s book is essentially a popularization of the five-volume “Studies in Prejudice” series, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, which was conceived and written just after the war at a time when many assumptions about American society that now appear questionable were widely held. She makes greatest use of the findings of The Authoritarian Personality by T. W. Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel J. Levinson, and R. Nevitt Sanford, the longest and most influential volume in the series and in many ways the most contentious. (It was reviewed at length in Commentary in June 1950 by Nathan Glazer, who then discussed it further in March 1954.)



Mrs. Hirsh has tried, however, to adapt her theme to the new climate of opinion. Most of the authors of the “Studies in Prejudice” series kept one eye on Nazi Germany when interpreting their rich material on the psychological roots of ethnic prejudice in America. Their belief in the possible, or even probable, rise of an American fascist movement making a mass appeal to race hatred established the social and historical context for their observations. Mrs. Hirsh has abandoned the neo-Marxist tone of apocalypse that pervaded The Authoritarian Personality, substituting for it the milder and more abstract notion of a conflict in American values between humanitarian altruism and success-striving, between “being good” and “making good.” The influence of Margaret Mead, with her tendency to write of “our culture” as if it were a single-hued blanket enveloping everyone, is more evident here than Marx, Freud, or modern sociology. Yet Mrs. Hirsh’s theory that “contradictory commandments now so firmly woven into our culture that we hardly know which we are truly to heed” are the source of ethnic prejudice seems even less adequate than the conspiratorial theory of a ruthless American ruling class tacitly encouraging racist demagogy in order to stave off a drive for social reform. Her view that tension between the demands of morality and ambition to rise socially and economically generates ethnic prejudice fails entirely to distinguish between the different situations of sub-groups in the population.

Mrs. Hirsh adds to the topicality of her book by including a chapter on attitudes towards Negroes and a discussion of Communist authoritarianism, a subject completely neglected in the original volumes. The “Studies in Prejudice” series contained much scattered information on anti-Negro attitudes, but its main concern was with anti-Semitism, for good and sufficient theoretical reasons. The support given by all community institutions in the South and parts of the North to racial discrimination makes it much less likely that strongly anti-Negro, as distinct from anti-Semitic, attitudes are characteristic of people with a particular personality structure suffering definable neurotic disturbances. Mrs. Hirsh ably reviews the sexual fears, the psychic mechanisms of projection and displacement, and the circular logic of the prejudiced, but most of what she says has long been known and lacks the psychological specificity, the detailed tracing of prejudice to its roots in childhood biography, that was the most illuminating and novel contribution of The Authoritarian Personality.



The trouble with Mrs. Hirsh’s book is that she has tried to write a general primer on ethnic intolerance in American society while using material that is representative of a rather specialized psychological approach to the problem. T. W. Adorno and his colleagues themselves repeatedly insisted that their modified psychoanalytic method was by no means capable of dealing with all facets of ethnic prejudice. Thus, along with much skillful summarizing of the parent volume, Mrs. Hirsh includes far too many unintegrated observations on such topics as the economic advantage to the South of a cheap Negro labor supply, the role of law in controlling discriminatory practices, and the connection between prejudice and the Puritan tradition.

Moreover, almost all popular presentations of the psychoanalytic approach to social problems, and a good deal of professional psychoanalytic writing as well, suffer from one major defect: taken together, they explain far too much. Prejudice, Communist sympathies, crime, alcoholism, and wife-beating are all shown to be symptoms of basic anxiety, self-hatred, and childhood misery. If people guilty of these vices are “neurotic,” the writer is often led to imply, and sometimes actually to assert, that people who lack the particular symptom he is concerned with are “normal.” The unconvincing attempt by the authors of The Authoritarian Personality to delineate a “democratic personality” free from ethnic intolerance and mentally healthy is a case in point. Intense prejudice may be a symptom of personal neurosis, but its absence certainly does not justify the assumption of a hypothetical unprejudiced “normal” personality type.1

In spite of their persistent tendency to make a liberal political outlook almost a criterion of mental health, Adorno and his collaborators occasionally recognize this, as does Mrs. Hirsh, who is aware of the trenchant criticisms that have been directed at the original research. Political liberals free of the slightest taint of ethnic prejudice may, after all, take to drink out of neurotic motives, just as people with strong hearts may suffer from ailments of the liver.



Apart from the unsatisfactory effort to identify and sanctify a non-neurotic “democratic personality,” little attempt is made in the “Studies in Prejudice” series to describe those personality types, whether neurotic or normal, that are not predisposed to ethnic intolerance. An exception may be found in one of the shorter volumes of the series: Anti-Semitism and Emotional Disorder, by Nathan W. Ackerman and Marie Jahoda. They write, after enumerating the psychiatric symptoms displayed by anti-Semites: “In this broad range of diagnosis and vague symptoms . . . one type of disturbance becomes conspicuous through its absence. None of the cases manifested a genuine, deep depression.”

It is probably too much to expect a frankly popular book to exhibit such subtleties of psychological characterization. The effort to present broad conclusions shorn of the detail in which they were embedded in the “Studies in Prejudice” volumes inevitably highlights weaknesses inherent in all psychoanalytic interpretations of social facts.



1 See Bruno Bettelheim’s review of Prejudice and Your Child by Kenneth Clark in last month’s issue—Ed.


About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.