To people who take their cues from the intellectual fashions of academe, any speculation about the decline and fall of…
To people who take their cues from the intellectual fashions of academe, any speculation about the decline and fall of psychoanalsyis must seem premature or downright perverse. Freud’s name, along with those of Nietzsche and Heidegger, has never evoked more automatic reverence than it does today, and the Continental thinkers, from Jürgen Habermas and Paul Ricoeur to Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan and the late Roland Barthes, who for the moment strike literary commentators as most advanced, are all Freudians in their various ways. Partisans of psychoanalysis can take comfort, furthermore, from an unabated outpouring of “applied analysis” in the form of psycholiterary, psychobiographical, and psychohistorical studies which, if not always a credit to the tradition, attest to the continuing seductiveness of Freud’s ideas.
But given the diminished standing of psychoanalysis as a psychiatric modality and a theory of mind, it is questionable how much longer the Freudian vogue can last. Bodies of purportedly scientific thought, however dazzling they may be to people who take ideological inspiration from them, ultimately depend for survival on empirical support for their claims. So, indeed, do all disciplines that intend to describe and account for experience in nontranscendent terms, whether or not they aspire to be recognized as sciences. After nearly a century, psychoanalysis has received only trifling and debatable corroboration—and much devastating criticism. If that criticism has yet to make an impact on literary intellectuals, we can anticipate that even they will eventually get the point.
In America at least, there are many signs that psychoanalysis has been falling out of favor. The number of applicants for therapy and training has declined, and perspicacious Freudians have been complaining that the brightest, most scientifically creative young doctors are no longer drawn toward their specialty. One of the central concepts of Freudianism, neurosis, has been pronounced devoid of meaning by the canonical Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association.1 The authority of Freud, uniquely important to the morale of his followers, has been eroded by a flood of books detailing his logical and empirical mistakes, his frailties of temperament, and his deafness to reasonable objections. The proliferation of psychoanalytic schools and splinter groups has undermined confidence that the movement as a whole rests on commonly secured scientific grounds. Feminists have convincingly challenged the Freudian picture of their sex as condemned by anatomy to masochism and penis envy. And decisive advances in our knowledge of the waking and sleeping brain, providing revolutionary insights into dream activity, psychotic states, the localization of functions, and the chemistry of pain and pleasure, have not only supplied more reliable means of characterizing the mind, but have established an embarrassing contrast with the vacuous Freudian research tradition, which has failed to yield a single authenticated discovery.
Although these developments, taken collectively, would appear to be ominous, most psychoanalysts continue to act as if no sum of setbacks and concessions could fundamentally damage their institution. In displaying such confidence they follow Freud himself, who on diverse occasions proposed that the whole of his metapsychology could be safely discarded, that neurophysiology would one day obviate his psychological postulates, that factors beyond the purview of psychoanalysis attach people to their neuroses, and that an analyst can have little expectation of undoing a complex. Those statements contradicted promises Freud made between and after his seizures of modesty. To the faithful, however, they appear not as confessions of frustration or as reflections on the vigorous claims that they negate, but as signs of an enviable open-mindedness. By the same token, some analysts feel that with each new debunking of a Freudian hypothesis, their discipline makes a smaller target for future snipers.
Psychoanalysis can indeed make do without any given item of doctrine. The reason, however, lies not in the strength of its other, demonstrated, claims, but in the ambiguous state of its theory and in the public’s willingness to grant that an entrenched psychiatric institution must possess a core of valid findings. That willingness is in the process of crumbling. As it does so, we can only become more acutely aware that Freud’s putative science of mind lacks a firm empirical basis, is riddled with gratuitous assumptions, and relies for its prestige on therapeutic expectations that seem to be met at least as well by rival and less tortuous forms of treatment.
I myself, among other one-time Freudians, supposed for years that the well-foundedness of psychoanalysis as a theory could be judged apart from any disallowed claims for psychoanalysis as a therapy. I professed agnosticism’ toward the therapy while maintaining that the theory had proved its independent merits as a psychology. Freudian theory, however, has always been tied epistemologically to the “clinical findings” of individual psychotherapy, and its many counterintuitive postulates took hold as a means of accounting for the triumphant therapeutic results claimed by psychoanalysts. If those results were to prove exaggerated, and if it were shown that the Freudian clinical situation is epistemologically compromised by the therapist’s presuppositions, then the whole necessity for positing the deep structures and mechanisms of the Freudian unconscious would dissolve.
The therapeutic claims of psychoanalysis, it must be understood, are differential. That is, Freudians maintain that their regimen, by far the most expensive and time-consuming of some two hundred competing therapies, demonstrates its value by effecting permanent improvements, as opposed to the mere symptomatic relief, or even outright “symptom substitution,” that results from quicker treatments. The idea is that psychoanalysis alone roots out the source of the patient’s suffering by giving him conscious access to his long-repressed traumatic experiences in the first years of life.2 Although not every psychoanalyst feels confident enough to make that boast, every orthodox practitioner depends on it for his livelihood. For if one therapy worked about as well as another, only people with severely impaired reasoning, or with motives other than a wish to be speedily cured, would choose the one that is most disruptive of their budgets and of their work schedules.
Because of intrinsic difficulties in comparing long-term outcomes of diverse therapies, one cannot say for certain whether any modality is superior to another. It is significant, however, that existing studies, even when they have made no allowance for the vastly longer duration of Freudian treatment, have failed to note any meaningful advantage of that treatment over its myriad competitors.3 Researchers have established a likelihood that psychoanalysis and all other psychotherapies are statistically better than no intervention at all, but this scarcely constitutes an endorsement of Freudianism. On the contrary, if all psychotherapies were to be judged about equally effective, psychoanalysis would rank as the least efficient of therapies, bar none. As for “symptom substitution,” it appears to be at least as common in former patients of psychoanalysis as in others. Indeed, it pervades Freud’s own case histories, which are to a remarkable extent a record of confessed or implied failure.4
More importantly, the tentatively supported equivalence of therapeutic outcomes places in jeopardy the claim of psychoanalysis to succeed because its psychological theory is singularly correct. An overwhelmingly plausible alternative view is that all therapies succeed, insofar as they do, for reasons other than the unique causal factors specified in their accompanying theories. It is easy to imagine such reasons—for instance, that patients who seek therapy have already decided to take themselves in hand, or that any explanation offered in tandem with a promise of symptom relief can be happily embraced, or simply that a hired friend is better than none.5 In short, theories that enter into therapies probably do so in the function of welcome placebos. If so, the theories not only remain unsubstantiated by therapeutic success; they are positively erroneous in isolating curative factors that are wide of the mark.
The fact that psychoanalysis frequently “works” is therefore less corroborative than some contented former patients think it is. Faith healing “works,” too, as Freud ruefully acknowledged in deferring to the superior results achieved at Lourdes. Just as a successful laying on of hands demonstrates nothing about Christ’s mercy, so the propositional content of psychoanalysis remains undemonstrated by a successful case history—or by any number of them. If psychoanalysis is to justify its distinctly exotic theory, it must show that the unique features of that theory are well authenticated by facts that do not lend themselves to any simpler explanation.
Unfortunately, however, the situation that produces nearly all psychoanalytic evidence—the clinical interview—is epistemologically contaminated to an extreme degree. It would be hard to find a data-gathering arrangement less conducive to the empirical ideal of neutralizing the investigator’s bias. Psychoanalysts, like other therapeutic practitioners, perceive their patients through the categories of the theory that outsiders regard as questionable—and the theory in this instance is notorious for its encouragement of premature conclusions. A Freudian can as readily find “evidence” of libidinal cathexes and repressed imagos as a Jungian can locate the anima, the shadow, and the persona. Neither group, we can be sure, will ever stumble across “evidence” for the existence of the other’s postulated entities.
Freudian analysts would have us believe that their patients get better because they have raised repressed memories to consciousness and achieved a maturing insight into their formerly buried conflicts. But as Freud himself sometimes feared, there are indications that some of the materials eventually “recovered” from a patient’s “repressed unconscious” may be artifacts of insistent suggestion on the analyst’s part. Doubts have been raised as to whether the memory impressions of early infancy survive at all6—to say nothing of whether they possess pathogenicity for outbreaks of neurosis several decades later. Moreover, in the words of two pro-Freudian but understandably troubled reviewers of research, “Investigators have found that individuals will enthusiastically accept bogus interpretations as accurate descriptions of their own personalities.”7 Other researchers have found experimental evidence suggesting that introspective confirmation of the causes of one’s own thoughts and feelings is beyond the capacity of exceptional as well as ordinary people.8 Without such confirmation from the patient, an analyst’s inferences that certain early traumatic experiences were pathogenic must remain conjectural. Putting these considerations together with the failure of psychoanalysis to indicate any substantial advantage over other treatments, we can say that no grounds whatever exist for believing that recovery of the repressed is specifically therapeutic—or indeed that “the repressed” is an applicable term.
In linking therapeutic success to indifferent or spurious factors, psychoanalysis is no more disingenuous than any number of therapies that invite their clients to merge with the collective unconscious, regress to infancy, relive their births, or identify their previous incarnations. It does stand out, however, as the therapy that places fundamental stress on analysis of the resistance. The resistance in question issues in a reluctance to accept the therapist’s most assured guesses about the patient’s psychodynamics and their relation to “remembered” or reconstructed infantile experiences. Thus, the patient’s balking at interpretive hints that may be misguided or even silly is taken as a sign of resurgent conflict with parents and siblings. The dissolving of this allegedly atavistic uncooperativeness—a recalcitrance which may in fact attest to the patient’s unsurrendered common sense—is considered to be the analyst’s infinitely painstaking task. Uniquely among recipients of psychotherapy, then, the Freudian client has his treatment prolonged and pays handsomely for the privilege of having some of his objections set aside, even though they may have been entirely warranted.
If psychoanalysis, as its most fervent supporters have said, really is “the” cure for personality disorders, we must wonder why it has confined its benefits to the relatively healthy as well as the relatively affluent. The best indicators for success as a psychoanalytic patient, according to the Freudian investigators already cited, are “youth, education, intelligence, motivation, time, money, and a relative lack of profound personality disturbance.”9 Yet even among this elite, psychoanalysis has not been able to show differentially impressive results. And it has on its books an exceptional share of the walking wounded. Everyone around the Freudian community knows patients who have become addicted to their analyses, clinging to a fruitless, financially draining dependency for ten, fifteen, or even twenty years without being either “cured,” discharged as incurable, or referred to another form of treatment. Although Freud himself, in his late, pessimistic paper “Analysis Terminable and Interminable,” recommended the setting of an arbitrary concluding date for stubborn cases, a significant number of analysts have dealt with their own protracted failure by calling the patient’s efforts incomplete and by represcribing the very medicine that had failed to take effect.
When we turn from the state of the therapy to that of the theory, we find that the taint of subjectivism is pervasive. The problem begins with Freud, who took little care for self-consistency and whose writings, in the assessment of one distinguished psychoanalyst, were “formulated in a bewilderingly unsystematic way.”10 Because he believed, furthermore, that the clinical dialogue provided all the testing of hypotheses that scientific rigor could require, Freud continually overrated the empirical basis of his ideas—even to the point of maintaining that he had confounded genetic theory by discovering in his patients inherited memory traces from the dawn of civilization. Although few of his followers have accepted that judgment, nearly all of them have shared in the naive methodological assumption that lay behind it—namely, the belief that hypotheses about the deepest structure of the human mind can be confirmed by what patients reveal to their analysts through “free association” and reports of dreams.
In logic, there is no need for contemporary psychoanalysts to repeat Freud’s errors of fact or to emulate his overconfidence in drawing conclusions. In practice, however, analysts have not proved capable of subjecting Freud’s ideas to the unsparing criticism that would typify a genuinely empirical discipline. Though most analysts differ from Freud on various particulars, they show no eagerness to confront the general, long-familiar epistemological objections to his work. The reason, we may suppose, is that their own work rests not only on Freud’s scientific authority as a ground-breaker but also on the questionable rules of inference-drawing that he devised. The unwritten imperative of psychoanalytic reform is to salvage as much of Freud as possible, in appearance if not in substance. As we will see in a characteristic example, metapsychology has consequently choked itself with provisos and addenda that are meant to reverse Freud’s deterministic emphasis without seeming to do so. Much of psychoanalytic thought is by now a palimpsest of hazy, mutually jostling notions, not one of which has been shown by an adequately designed empirical study to be the most likely explanation of a given phenomenon.
To be sure, some researchers who began with Freudian sympathies and who neglected to test for plausible alternatives to, say, repression and castration anxiety believe they have proved the explanatory value of such concepts.11 Unreconstructed critics, however, have had little trouble exposing the fallaciousness of such proofs.12 And still others have reviewed the whole standing of psychoanalysis as knowledge and found it to be nugatory. In an important series of recent articles, the eminent philosopher of science Adolf Grünbaum has inquired whether psychoanalysis meets currently accepted canons of inductivism.13 His judgments will be gathered in a book to be entitled Is Psychoanalysis a Pseudo-Science? While Grünbaum does not rule out the logical possibility that some Freudian hypotheses may one day be supported, he finds that for now psychoanalysis rests on no solid evidence and that its purported clinical confirmations are open to the most fundamental doubts. Nor can we overlook the stunning pronouncement made in 1975 by the Nobel prizewinner in medicine P. B. Medawar: “[D]octrinaire psychoanalytic theory is the most stupendous intellectual confidence trick of the 20th century: and a terminal product as well—something akin to a dinosaur or a zeppelin in the history of ideas, a vast structure of radically unsound design and with no posterity.”14
Against this bleak prospect, defenders of psychoanalysis assert that forbearance is in order. Their movement, they say, is still young; it is as yet a “protoscience,” groping with forgivable clumsiness toward an adequate framing of its discoveries. We are asked to look forward to a time when conscientious Freudians will have made peace with the scientific mainstream by simplifying the theory and submitting the remaining core of propositions to the most demanding empirical tests. Then, presumably, we will have avoided discarding valuable, hard-won insights along with early misconceptions. Every champion of the movement can point to a favorite branch of revisionism that has supposedly made a good beginning toward this goal.
After nine decades of sectarianism and self-isolation from the broader scientific community, however, psychoanalysis would hardly seem to be “proto” anything. The record to date suggests that when analytic theorists undertake to replace one of Freud’s implausible ideas, they do so without benefit of methodological safeguards against further error. Unlike demonstrably empirical discoveries, furthermore, psychoanalytic reforms rarely bring the warring Freudian factions together; nearly every change has meant a further sundering, a new occasion for dogmatic belief within a subset of the faithful. This fission has been caused, not by the exuberant youthfulness that Freudians ascribe to their discipline, but by the fact that it is not, strictly speaking, a discipline at all. That is to say, psychoanalysis as usually elaborated eschews the means of discriminating warrantedly between rival hypotheses about mental functioning and paths to symptom removal. As for the “hard-won insights” that we should hesitate to dismiss, most of those that may actually possess merit were current before Freud’s time and will presumably remain accessible in the future.15
Two factors condemn innovative Freudian metapsychologies to the subjectivism that yields one unresolvable quarrel after another. The first is that psychoanalytic reformers have only their own taste to guide them in deciding which metapsychological concepts to perpetuate and which to challenge. Notions like “id” and “oedipus complex” and “pleasure principle” take their meaning from a network of postulates that generate no straightforward behavioral consequences. Thus the presence or absence of such consequences in a given instance cannot serve as a test of theoretical adequacy. On the contrary, the elasticity of Freudian interpretive rules, whereby any phenomenon can bear either its manifest meaning or an opposite meaning or some third, “displaced,” meaning, enables every interpreter to convince himself that his concepts are backed by evidence. This absence of constraints encourages the riding of hobbyhorses instead of a principled adjudication of differences.
And second, most psychoanalytic theoreticians have relied on “findings” that will be forever unavailable to outside parties. The Freudian community retains its self-respect by assuming that the author of a paper, because he has been analyzed and officially trained, has acquired an objectivity and scrupulousness rarely found among the laity. But with the best will in the world, a Freudian innovator meets no methodological barrier against the temptation to misinterpret, embroider, or censor his essentially secret case histories. Scientific responsibility is thus lodged precariously not in the watchdog process whereby investigators check the replicability of one another’s announced results, but in individuals telling self-serving anecdotes about anonymous patients. In a community operating by such rules, metapsychological innovation comes cheaply—and is prized no less cheaply by guardians of established views.
Let us suppose, however, that reformers could persuade their colleagues to do without high-level metapsychology and restrict themselves to those concepts that provide a quasi-phenomenological account of therapist-client relations—concepts such as resistance, transference, repression, and regression. Could psychoanalysis get by on that minimal basis? Some revisionists think so, but they overlook the fact that even these terms are shot through with implications about infantile sexuality, the alleged stages of libidinal development, the early-traumatic etiology of neurosis, and the analyst’s privileged insight into that etiology. Psychoanalysis as a drawn-out regimen presupposes those ideas; without them, there would be no conceivable justification for the laborious and costly task of anamnesis.
If psychoanalysts wish to continue practicing under the old rules, therefore, they cannot afford to go very far toward admitting how little they really know about the mind. To most present-day analysts, Freud’s system is at once reassuring in its apparent conferral of authority and embarrassing in many of its details. The analysts’ best hope of preserving their elevated standing in a volatile society is to patch over the more obvious defects in classic psychoanalytic thought while continuing to maintain that they understand what causes and cures mental instability, what the basic instincts are, how sexual identity is formed, and so forth. We will see, however, that such ad hoc repair not only fails to go far enough; in some cases it makes matters worse by taxing the theory with overcomplication and by drawing attention to the flaws it is intended to cover.
To examine the liabilities of psychoanalytic reform at close range, let us consider one of the most respected of contemporary theorists, Heinz Kohut. Though Kohut is less well known to laymen than a Fromm or an Erik-son, among the cognoscenti he comes nearer to fitting the image of a properly Freudian innovator. His two major works, The Analysis of the Self (1971) and The Restoration of the Self (1977), have a large and grateful following, and recently he has acknowledged his eminence by issuing a two-volume collection of papers, graced by a 106-page introduction by Dr. Paul H. Ornstein extolling what is now said to be “the leading paradigm of psychoanalysis.”16 Needless to say, there is room for dispute of that honor; psychoanalytic theory is so easy to play variations on that anyone with a handful of followers could think he had revolutionized the field. But if Freud’s couch were passed along like the throne of St. Peter, it might well find itself today in Dr. Kohut’s office in Chicago.
It is not just Kohut’s stature but also his deference to empirical values that makes him an appropriate figure for assessing the future of psychoanalysis. In his papers he repeatedly admonishes his colleagues against hasty conclusions and unnecessarily rigid views. He is careful to reject biological explanations of psychologically described events, and he tries wherever possible to rely on tangible phenomena rather than on abstract reconstructions. One of his main concerns within the American Psychoanalytic Association, furthermore, has been the promotion of research. And unlike some analysts, he does not hesitate to point out areas in which psychoanalysis has shown itself deficient. By manner, at least, no one would inspire more confidence in the capacity of Freudians to set their house in order.
Sadly, however, Kohut’s empirical scruples turn out to be mostly cosmetic—a matter of scientistic rhetoric rather than true rigor. Psychoanalysis in its current state is already, for him, “this great new edifice of human thought” (695), “this new sun among the sciences of man” (684), “the science that reaches farthest into the breadth and depth of the human soul” (683-84), and the rightful candidate to become “man’s scientific leader” (682). Nothing in his writings suggests awareness of the key defect in his “science,” namely, the fact that we have typically been asked to take an analyst’s word both for the raw data he reports and for the correctness of his interpretations.
On the contrary, Kohut refers with assurance to “the laboratory of psychoanalytic treatment” (523), as if analysts in their fifty-minute hours were properly testing the debatable hypotheses of Freudianism instead of applying familiar and notably compliant rules of interpretation. And when he calls for more research, he has in view not controlled studies that might determine which concepts deserve to survive, but mere consolidation and publication of what analysts have already learned “from the clinical situation” (602). To be sure, Kohut worries about bias in research—but he does so along the quaint diagnostic lines established by Freud. One researcher, he tells us, may have reacted so strongly against his early sadistic impulses that he is too compassionate to be objective (607), and another may suffer from “a libidinal hypercathexis in the visual-cognitive area” (608) and so lack balanced judgment. In Kohut’s perspective, the problem of skewed results apparently vanishes as soon as the investigator has achieved “mastery and integration of infantile precursors of his research interest” (608).
I have mentioned as one of the handicaps of psychoanalysis its intellectually compromising subservience to Freud. Kohut, true to his role as an enlightened adviser to the movement, discusses this very problem at some length. Analysts in training, he says, encounter Freud as “the great father-figure and teacher of our science” (796), and thus they acquire “an attitude of firmly established identification with an idealized figure (or, in reaction formation, of rebelliousness against this identification)” (796). As Kohut sees it, this confusion of emotional dependency with the scientific posture is a warping force, inducing the individual psychoanalyst either to rubber-stamp Freud’s ideas or to undermine them by hitting on some gratuitous novelty to emphasize.
One might expect Kohut, therefore, to be especially wary of idolizing Freud. Such is not the case. Psychoanalysts, he announces, are lucky “because in this finite life we are able to participate in the work of one of the few geniuses of mankind, a participation which in our field appears to me to be more intimate and profound than in most other sciences” (393). As we will see, Kohut senses that his own ideas are in crucial respects opposed to Freud’s; like other revisionists, he faces the psychological and rhetorical problem of diverging from the “genius” while continuing to share in his glory. The solution is to take on faith great chunks of doctrine that are not immediately at issue and to appease Freud’s offended ghost with hyperbolical praise.
Thus, for example, Kohut asks why Freud thought that female sexuality is an outcome of thwarted phallic strivings rather than a natural biological development. Could it be that the master had a “circumscribed blindspot” (228) on this issue? Kohut raises the possibility only to wave it away without discussion. It must have been an admirable “reliance on clinical evidence” (228) that kept Freud from exercising common sense: “Penetrating beyond the feminine attitudes and feelings of his patients, he regularly found the struggle over phallic strivings, and, white he accepted biological bisexuality, he rejected the postulate of a preceding psychological phase of femininity without psychological evidence for it” (228). Kohut does not allow that Freud’s “penetrations” may have been tendentious, or that “evidence” supplied by indoctrinated adult patients may not necessarily be evidence of an infantile stage of development, or that Freud’s acceptance of “biological bisexuality” was just as arbitrary as his decision to make penis envy the raison d’être of femininity. Ordinary empirical prudence must be stifled in deference to “the great father-figure and teacher of our science.”17
More is involved in such kindness than filial homage, however. If Kohut were to grant the full extent of Freud’s interpretive whimsy, he would be disavowing his own right to base conclusions about early childhood on remarks made by supine grownups. Kohut must remain convinced that psychoanalytic theory is objectively dictated by facts that impress themselves upon the clinician who is schooled to listen empathically and ponder introspectively. Indeed, Kohut is so enamored of this idea that he thinks empathy “should become the guiding ideal of all the sciences . . . the scientist’s commitment to it should take the place of the pride in his methodological and technological expertness which he has felt up to now” (703). Without flinching, he tells us that “Freud’s attitude concerning the development of female sexuality is only one of many examples of his faithful adherence to the introspective and empathic method of observation” (228-29). Yet neither Freud nor Kohut would be able to explain how introspection and empathy generate adequate controls for error and idées fixes, much less how they enable the Freudian thinker to make inferences about psychic energy, stages of infancy, various kinds of libido, oedipal and pre-oedipal fixations, and the rest of the leaden conceptual baggage that psychoanalysis carries wherever it goes. Nor could they explain why analysts, if their tools of investigation are indeed superior to those of experimental natural science, remain divided within squabbling sects, each with its boast of having corrected the others’ faulty understanding of the mind.
Kohut himself is the founder of one such sect, purportedly the guardian of fundamental advances in therapy as well as theory. His contribution has been to rescue narcissism from its lowly place in Freudian thought and to endow it with its own special drive, its hitherto neglected vicissitudes (the “narcissistic disturbances”), its ideal line of normal development, and a happy ending, namely, the production of a wholeness that Kohut designates as “the self.” Kohut, Ornstein, and others now regard “the psychology of the self” as a second and superior half of the great theoretical edifice begun by Freud. Until he himself came along, Kohut reflects, psychoanalysis saw only “Guilty Man,” in conflict with his libidinal drives. Now we can also deal precisely with “Tragic Man,” whose goal is not gratification but self-realization. At last psychoanalysis can “attempt to make contributions—scientific contributions—to the understanding of some of the most important activities of man, such as his religions or his art, that do not dissolve these activities into their elemental constituents and, by doing so, become blind to their essential significance . . .” (923-24).18
Like other Freudian explorers, Kohut tells us little about the procedures he followed in arriving at his discoveries. From what he does say, however, we can discern the outlines of a characteristic pattern. In his case as in some others, the analyst’s starting point is apparently a perception of indifferent therapeutic success—a perception he keeps to himself until after the breakthrough, whereupon he becomes more or less candid about past failures, though not about present ones. Thus Kohut reveals that for some fifteen years before 1974, he had felt “increasingly stumped” (888) by as many as half of his cases. (One looks in vain for any acknowledgment of that fact in papers written during the period.) Goaded to try new ideas, the analyst decides to attach extra importance to some element of behavior or theory—in this case narcissism—that earlier investigators have overlooked or considered incidental. Then, still believing that whatever he learns from analytic sessions must be direct evidence of infantile development, he links the newly central factor to the “archaic experiences” that his patients have supposedly recovered from their repressed depths.
To the analyst’s delight, everything falls into place; the patient who is destined to become the latest Dora eventually accedes to his interpretive hints and feels, presumably, that the stalled analysis must be getting somewhere at last. The treatment then proceeds according to the customary Sisyphean technique, but with an altered vocabulary and a different set of assumptions about the nature of the patient’s woes, the root causes of trouble, and the signs of progress and backsliding. Certain forms of childishness on the patient’s part, for example, are now considered productive, for they indicate revival of the conflicts that have just been granted theoretical preeminence.
Needless to say, the new point of view is no less spuriously confirmed by “clinical results” than the one it has supplanted. In evaluating his apparent success, the analyst is unlikely to wait until he can learn whether the “cure,” if any, was only temporary. Nor will he inquire whether his own enthusiasm may have served as a placebo, or whether an extant rival theory might have yielded the same results, or whether Dora may have simply gotten older and more resigned to other people’s obsessions, or whether he should take into account those patients who have resisted his new line of coaxing and have thus failed to ratify his destiny as a medical pioneer. And in writing up his scientific advance for the edification of his colleagues, he of course provides no data to support the claim of sharply increased therapeutic success. To do so would be to break with Freud’s precedent and to imply that there may be something lax about the trusting atmosphere that enables each reporting analyst, whether or not he is a competent therapist, to have a turn at innovation.
Kohut is typical in another important respect as well: he does everything he can to minimize the extent of his departure from orthodoxy. As a holistic concept, Kohut’s idea of selfhood is contradictory in spirit to the mechanistic, trifurcated model of mind developed by Freud. Potentially, then, Kohut is as much a schismatic as Jung, who stood Freudian theory on its head. He tells us, however, that he built his new system keeping in mind that “the new psychology of the self must remain in an unbroken continuum with traditional psychoanalytic theory to preserve the sense of the historical continuity of the group self in the psychoanalytic community” (937). For a sentimental or political reason, in other words, Kohut was determined to insert his ideas into the preexisting framework of metapsychology, whether or not they belonged there.
That is precisely what he did, with results that defy succinct description. Dr. Ornstein’s labyrinthine introduction traces the stages of Kohut’s delicate progress toward conceiving of two selves—in effect, one for Freud and one for Kohut. The “narrower” self, as Ornstein notes, is “embedded (albeit somewhat loosely) in a mental-apparatus psychology and ego psychology,” while the broader or Kohutian one “is conceptually independent from and has moved beyond drive theory and ego psychology” (98). As a concordat with the Freudian establishment, this arrangement has much to recommend it. As a supposed psychological finding, it requires the faith of a Bernadette.
Kohut’s practice, to speak bluntly, is always to throw a bone to Freud while saving the choicest, most humanistic-looking morsels of theory for himself. Thus he fully accepts Freud’s account of the psychoneuroses, in which a repressed drive is seeking satisfaction, but charts as his own territory the more congenial narcissistic disorders, in which “an injured, narcissistic ego is seeking reassurance” (22). The mind, it seems, is a creaky contraption when working for Freud but a soulful being when working for Kohut. Again, instead of challenging Freud’s murky idea of libido, Kohut tactfully avers that there are two kinds of libido, one leading to the traditional Freudian terminus of “object love,” the other leading to self-love and onward to selfhood, a realm where the penurious economy of Freudian energy expenditure is nowhere to be seen. And if just two selves seem insufficient to placate the orthodox, Kohut is willing to supply more—provided everyone agrees that he holds the patent on the best one. “We recognize,” he says,
the simultaneous existence of contradictory selves: of different selves of various degrees of stability and of various degrees of importance. There are conscious, preconscious, and unconscious selves; there are selves in the ego, the id, and the superego; and we may discover in some of our patients contradictory selves, side by side, in the same psychic agency. Among these selves, however, there is one which is most centrally located in the psyche; one which is experienced as the basic one, and which is most resistant to change. I like to call this self the “nuclear self.” (96)
As this passage suggests, there are no limits to the complication that psychoanalytic reformers will add to already dubious postulates in order to avoid an open break with tradition. So long as analysts want simultaneously to free themselves from Freud’s biologism and to bask in its remaining prestige, they will continue ornamenting the stark branches of id psychology with “selves”—and with neutralized energies, and desexualized drives, and integrative functions, and conflict-free spheres of the ego—without noticing that they are creating, not a credible metapsychology, but a Rube Goldberg apparatus that bears no examinable relation to experience.
As everyone knows, Freud explained intellectual resistance to psychoanalysis in terms of injured human pride. His discovery that our minds are enthralled by repressed wishes, he announced without undue humility on his own part, was the third great blow to anthropocentrism following those administered by Copernicus and Darwin. Yet it is curious how readily many of us absorbed the putative insult and defended it as what it distinctly is not, a scientifically confirmed truth. The real question to be resolved is not why people resisted a doctrine that found in every physician a deflected sadist, in every artist a former dabbler in his own feces, in every infant a murderous and incestuous schemer, in every decent act the sublimation of a barbaric impulse. The question is rather why so many people fell cheerfully into line with these and equally lurid ideas, expounded with no more proof than the say-so of a compelling stylist.
Any answers are bound to be partial and conjectural. Yet I think we can recognize certain nonrational appeals within psychoanalysis, even if we cannot assign them relative degrees of importance. It would seem, for example, that for many intellectuals psychoanalysis has been, not a blow to human pride in general, but a means of elevating pride among a corps of privileged knowers who, by subscribing to the Freudian movement, rescue themselves from doubt and insignificance. It is as a cathartic and redemptive science that psychoanalysis has claimed our loyalty. “Normal science” is dry and impersonal, narrow in focus, and increasingly incomprehensible to the envious humanist. Psychoanalysis, by contrast, offers each of its believers a total vision that spans the entire history of our species, links biology and psychology, and unveils the innermost scandalous wishes animating heroes and ordinary folk, great works of art, and whole systems of law, philosophy, mythology, and religion. What is so humbling about that? Could Faust have asked Mephistopheles to show him much more?19
In part, then, we can suppose that psychoanalysis survives because it feeds extravagant intellectual hopes. It is energized not by the skeptical spirit but, as Freud knew in calling himself a conquistador, by a wish to overleap barriers and arrive at a comprehensive, countertraditional system of insight. Perhaps that is why armchair radicals, at a time when psychoanalysis as a therapy and science is in full retreat, can still base whole books on the most extreme elements of Freudian theory, such as polymorphous perversity and the death instinct. The reason they are not dissuaded by empirical criticism may be that their aim is precisely to have done with the restraining effects of empiricism. If I read them correctly, they wish to wield terms of discourse implying a realm of essence beneath and opposed to the visible world—a realm which, if we could only set it free, would work the overthrow of every tyranny of custom, tradition, and entrenched privilege. So, too, the “hermeneutic” school, which conceives of psychoanalysis only as a means of performing abstruse manipulations of texts, appears to have distilled from Freudianism its will to explanatory power while openly proclaiming the irrelevance of verification.
That sense of special power may be felt even by circumspect Freudians who eschew deep theory and try to confine themselves to such relatively accessible concepts as denial, projection, and identification. I was myself such a Freudian for a decade or so—excited yet also made wary by the prospect of holding a master key to interpretation. I remember taking comfort from the analysts’ rhetoric of meticulous devotion to fact, even while I deplored some of the shortcomings I have mentioned here. To be a cautious Freudian was to have the best of both worlds: allegiance to transpersonal standards of knowledge and a head start toward certainty. Possessing that head start, or the illusion of it, a partisan of psychoanalysis will understandably hesitate to entertain more than selective doubts about his doctrine.
Finally, many veterans of therapy have their own reasons for clinging to the faith. They have had what they call confirming experiences—crystallizations of emotion, flashes of self-recognition, and enhanced insight into people or problems that had been troubling them. We need not doubt the genuineness of these catharses; the prolonged strain intrinsic to a Freudian patient’s situation, combined with the analyst’s disapproval of conventional, self-protective responses, probably sharpens the analysand’s perceptions, however temporarily. What needs doubting is whether such experiences, which can be approximated in any number of other therapies or even in outright brainwashing, really ought to count as “confirming.” Memorable though they may be, they prove nothing at all about the correctness of Freudian theory or the long-run usefulness of the therapy. Try telling that, however, to someone who thanks his analysis for his sanity and who now sees the work of id and ego everywhere, much as his counterpart a few centuries ago detected the equally confirming influence of angels and devils.
For several reasons, then, a rush of defections from the Freudian ranks seems unlikely. Yet psychoanalysis, I would expect, will fade away just as mesmerism and phrenology did, and for the same reason: its exploded pretensions will deprive it of recruits. If most people cannot readily forgo an entire world view that has sustained them, they find it easy enough to avoid the strange-looking intellectual fashions of another era. Psychoanalysis, once so familiar that, in Erich Heller’s words, “it comes close to being the systematic consciousness that a certain epoch has of the nature and character of its soul,”20 is in the process of becoming strange. There is no reason to believe, much less to hope, that the process will be reversed.
Whether or not my prediction is accurate, there is an immediate moral to be drawn: a concern for empirical standards should make us reconsider the habit of borrowing bits and pieces of psychoanalytic thought for ad hoc explanatory purposes. Perhaps some Freudian ideas, pried loose from their context of presumptions about mental hydraulics and libidinal development, may eventually prove to have some merit. If so, it will be because they have won a test against concepts that take less for granted and fit better with inductive sense. In the meanwhile, we would do well to struggle along without recourse to instant “depth.” When we do, we will find that we have sacrificed, not complexity of understanding, but something nearly opposite: a pretended intimacy with realities that cannot be captured in the crude and monotonous language of Freudian explanation.
1 Critics have pointed out that the third edition of DSM (1980), like its predecessors, reflects political as well as medical and scientific opinion. Quite true: when smoking replaces homosexuality as a mental aberration, more of the credit must go to caucuses than to new findings. For that very reason, however, we can safely regard the DSM's demotion of “neurosis” as a sign of waning psychoanalytic influence.
2 In Anna Freud's words, “In competition with the pyschotherapies [analysts] are justified to maintain that what they have to offer is unique, i.e., thoroughgoing personality changes as compared with more superficial symptomatic cures.” Difficulties in the Path of Psychoanalysis (International Universities Press, 1969), p. 17.
3 See Lester Luborsky, Barton Singer, and Lise Luborsky, “Comparative Studies of Psychotherapies: Is It True That ‘Everyone Has Won and All Must Have Prizes’?” Archives of General Psychiatry, 32 (1975), pp. 995—1008; Leo Goldberger, Roger Reuben, and George Silberschatz, “Symptom Removal in Psychotherapy: A Review of the Literature,” Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Science, 5 (1976), pp. 513—536; and Allen E. Bergin and Michael Lambert, “The Evaluation of Therapeutic Outcomes,” in Sol L. Garfield and Allen E. Bergin, Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change: An Empirical Analysis, and ed. (Wiley, 1978), pp. 139—189.
4 Freud, according to two sympathetic observers, “never presented any data, in statistical or case form, that demonstrated that his treatment was of benefit to a significant number of patients he himself saw,” and he “chose to demonstrate the utility of psychoanalysis through descriptions of largely unsuccessful cases.” See Seymour Fisher and Roger P. Greenberg, The Scientific Credibility of Freud's Theories and Therapy (Basic Books, 1977), pp. 285, 281.
5 Why does the contest between psychotherapies appear to end in a massive dead heat? “The most potent explanatory factor is that different forms of psychotherapy have major common elements—a helping relationship with a therapist is present in all of them, along with other related, nonspecific effects such as suggestion and abreaction” (Luborsky et al. p. 1006).
6 See Jerome Kagan, Change and Continuity in Infancy (Wiley, 1971), and “The Baby's Elastic Mind,” Human Nature, January 1978, pp. 66—73.
7 Fisher and Greenberg, p. 364.
8 See Richard E. Nisbett and Timothy Wilson, “Telling More Than We Can Know: Verbal Reports on Mental Processes,” Psychological Review, 84 (1977), pp. 231—259.
9 Fisher and Greenberg, p. 303.
10 Benjamin B. Rubinstein, “On the Clinical Psychoanalytic Theory and Its Role in the Inference and Confirmation of Particular Clinical Hypotheses,” Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Science, 4 (1975), p. 31.
11 Observers who believe that at least a modest handful of Freudian hypotheses have been experimentally supported include Fisher and Greenberg (footnote 4 above); Paul Kline, Fact and Fantasy in Freudian Theory (Methuen, 1972); and Lloyd H. Silverman, “‘the Reports of My Death Are Greatly Exaggerated,’” in Science and Psychotherapy, ed. Raphael Stern et al. (Haven, 1977), pp. 255-282. Although the claims advanced by these Freudians are open to challenge, their acceptance in toto would lend only marginal credence to general psychoanalytic theory.
12 The locus classicus of Freudian investigations that rule out commonsense alternatives is a study purporting to show that, because a number of female college students dreamed of penises, the concept of penis envy has received significant support. The same study confirmed that women tend to dream about weddings and babies, i.e., “displaced penis envy.” For an authoritative discussion of this and other poorly conceived investigations, see Hans J. Eysenck and Glenn D. Wilson. The Experimental Study of Freudian Theories (Methuen, 1973).
13 See especially “Epistemological Liabilities of the Clinical Appraisal of Psychoanalytic Theory,” Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought, 2 (1979), pp. 451-526. I am indebted to Professor Grünbaum not only for several ideas in the present essay, but also for searching criticisms of my various drafts.
14 “Victims of Psychiatry,” New York Review of Books, January 23, 1975, p. 17.
15 See, e.g., Lancelot Law Whyte, The Unconscious Before Freud (Basic Books, 1960).
16 The Search for the Self: Selected Writings of Heinz Kohut: 1950-1978, 2 vols., ed. Paul H. Ornstein (International Universities Press, 1978), Introduction, p. 91. Subsequent parenthetical references will cite these continuously paginated volumes; all quoted italics appear in the original text.
17 Kohut does worry that Freud's theory strains credulity by asking us to believe that every little girl in the history of the world has responded with “envy, shame, rage, and denial” (785) to her genital incompleteness. Natural selection, however, comes to the rescue. Perhaps, Kohut suggests, “in the prehistorical past of the human race those females of the species who reacted with greater sensitivity to the experience that they had no penis had a higher survival rate” (785).
18 In practice, however, Kohut treats works of art just as previous analysts have, mining them for points of likeness to his favorite ideas. He asserts, for example, that paranoia arises genetically from the incapacity of a child's “self-objects” (parents) “to mirror the child's total self,” and he adds: “Kafka described this situation poignantly in Metamorphosis: Gregory Samsa experiences himself as non-human while his parents in the next room speak about him in the third person singular” (743n.). Had they spoken about “Gregory” in some other person or number, they might have been beyond even Dr. Kohut's help.
19 The replies of several pro-Freudian acquaintances to a draft of this essay have reinforced my guess about the correlation between psychoanalytic allegiance and animus against “normal science.” My respondents uniformly declared that since their interest in Freudianism was not a scientific one, my animadversions about the dubious scientific status of psychoanalysis were wasted on them. They did not care to recognize that I am here criticizing psychoanalysis, not for the technicality of failing to qualify as a science, but for being so conceptually muddled and empirically dubious that it does not warrant our belief. “Science,” which many Freudians conveniently confuse with materialism or positivism or behaviorism, is their straw man—an antithesis to the humanistic spirit that binds them, however irrationally, to psychoanalysis, for both Freud and humanism strike them as championing the beleaguered imagination.
20 “Observations on Psychoanalysis and Modern Literature,” in Psychiatry and the Humanities, ed. Joseph H. Smith, Vol. 1 (Yale University Press, 1976), p. 35.
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Exactly one week later, a Star Wars cantina of the American extremist right featuring everyone from David Duke to a white-nationalist Twitter personality named “Baked Alaska” gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a statue honoring the Confederate general Robert E. Lee. A video promoting the gathering railed against “the international Jewish system, the capitalist system, and the forces of globalism.” Amid sporadic street battles between far-right and “antifa” (anti-fascist) activists, a neo-Nazi drove a car into a crowd of peaceful counterprotestors, killing a 32-year-old woman.
Here, in the time span of just seven days, was the dual nature of contemporary American anti-Semitism laid bare. The most glaring difference between these two displays of hate lies not so much in their substance—both adhere to similar conspiracy theories articulating nefarious, world-altering Jewish power—but rather their self-characterization. The animosity expressed toward Jews in Charlottesville was open and unambiguous, with demonstrators proudly confessing their hatred in the familiar language of Nazis and European fascists.
The socialists in Chicago, meanwhile, though calling for a literal second Holocaust on the shores of the Mediterranean, would fervently and indignantly deny they are anti-Semitic. On the contrary, they claim the mantle of “anti-fascism” and insist that this identity naturally makes them allies of the Jewish people. As for those Jews who might oppose their often violent tactics, they are at best bystanders to fascism, at worst collaborators in “white supremacy.”
So, whereas white nationalists explicitly embrace a tribalism that excludes Jews regardless of their skin color, the progressives of the DSA and the broader “woke” community conceive of themselves as universalists—though their universalism is one that conspicuously excludes the national longings of Jews and Jews alone. And whereas the extreme right-wingers are sincere in their anti-Semitism, the socialists who called for the elimination of Israel are just as sincere in their belief that they are not anti-Semitic, even though anti-Semitism is the inevitable consequence of their rhetoric and worldview.
The sheer bluntness of far-right anti-Semitism makes it easier to identify and stigmatize as beyond the pale; individuals like David Duke and the hosts of the “Daily Shoah” podcast make no pretense of residing within the mainstream of American political debate. But the humanist appeals of the far left, whose every libel against the Jewish state is paired with a righteous invocation of “justice” for the Palestinian people, invariably trigger repetitive and esoteric debates over whether this or that article, allusion, allegory, statement, policy, or political initiative is anti-Semitic or just critical of Israel. What this difference in self-definition means is that there is rarely, if ever, any argument about the substantive nature of right-wing anti-Semitism (despicable, reprehensible, wicked, choose your adjective), while the very existence of left-wing anti-Semitism is widely doubted and almost always indignantly denied by those accused of practicing it.T o be sure, these recent manifestations of anti-Semitism occur on the left and right extremes. And statistics tell a rather comforting story about the state of anti-Semitism in America. Since the Anti-Defamation League began tracking it in 1979, anti-Jewish hate crime is at an historic low; indeed, it has been declining since a recent peak of 1,554 incidents in 2006. America, for the most part, remains a very philo-Semitic country, one of the safest, most welcoming countries for Jews on earth. A recent Pew poll found Jews to be the most admired religious group in the United States.1 If American Jews have anything to dread, it’s less anti-Semitism than the loss of Jewish peoplehood through assimilation, that is being “loved to death” by Gentiles.2 Few American Jews can say that anti-Semitism has a seriously deleterious impact on their life, that it has denied them educational or employment opportunities, or that they fear for the physical safety of themselves or their families because of their Jewish identity.
The question is whether the extremes are beginning to move in on the center. In the past year alone, the DSA’s rolls tripled from 8,000 to 25,000 dues-paying members, who have established a conspicuous presence on social media reaching far beyond what their relatively miniscule numbers attest. The DSA has been the subject of widespread media coverage, ranging from the curious to the adulatory. The white supremacists, meanwhile, found themselves understandably heartened by the strange difficulty President Donald Trump had in disavowing them. He claimed, in fact, that there had been some “very fine people” among their ranks. “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville,” tweeted David Duke, while the white-nationalist Richard Spencer said, “I’m proud of him for speaking the truth.”
Indeed, among the more troubling aspects of our highly troubling political predicament—and one that, from a Jewish perspective, provokes not a small amount of angst—is that so many ideas, individuals, and movements that could once reliably be categorized as “extreme,” in the literal sense of articulating the views of a very small minority, are no longer so easily dismissed. The DSA is part of a much broader revival of the socialist idea in America, as exemplified by the growing readership of journals like Jacobin and Current Affairs, the popularity of the leftist Chapo Trap House podcast, and the insurgent presidential campaign of self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders—who, according to a Harvard-Harris poll, is now the most popular politician in the United States. Since 2015, the average age of a DSA member dropped from 64 to 30, and a 2016 Harvard poll found a majority of Millennials do not support capitalism.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party of Donald Trump offers “nativism and culture war wedges without the Reaganomics,” according to Nicholas Grossman, a lecturer in political science at the University of Illinois. A party that was once reliably internationalist and assertive against Russian aggression now supports a president who often preaches isolationism and never has even a mildly critical thing to say about the KGB thug ruling over the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.
Like ripping the bandage off an ugly and oozing wound, Trump’s presidential campaign unleashed a bevy of unpleasant social forces that at the very least have an indirect bearing on Jewish welfare. The most unpleasant of those forces has been the so-called alternative right, or “alt-right,” a highly race-conscious political movement whose adherents are divided on the “JQ” (Jewish Question). Throughout last year’s campaign, Jewish journalists (this author included) were hit with a barrage of luridly anti-Semitic Twitter messages from self-described members of the alt-right. The tamer missives instructed us to leave America for Israel, others superimposed our faces onto the bodies of concentration camp victims.3
I do not believe Donald Trump is himself an anti-Semite, if only because anti-Semitism is mainly a preoccupation—as distinct from a prejudice—and Trump is too narcissistic to indulge any preoccupation other than himself. And there is no evidence to suggest that he subscribes to the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories favored by his alt-right supporters. But his casual resort to populism, nativism, and conspiracy theory creates a narrative environment highly favorable to anti-Semites.
Nativism, of which Trump was an early and active practitioner, is never good for the Jews, no matter how affluent or comfortable they may be and notwithstanding whether they are even the target of its particular wrath. Racial divisions, which by any measure have grown significantly worse in the year since Trump was elected, hurt all Americans, obviously, but they have a distinct impact on Jews, who are left in a precarious position as racial identities calcify. Not only are the newly emboldened white supremacists of the alt-right invariably anti-Semites, but in the increasingly racialist taxonomy of the progressive left—which more and more mainstream liberals are beginning to parrot—Jews are considered possessors of “white privilege” and, thus, members of the class to be divested of its “power” once the revolution comes. In the racially stratified society that both extremes envision, Jews lose out, simultaneously perceived (by the far right) as wily allies and manipulators of ethnic minorities in a plot to mongrelize America and (by the far left) as opportunistic “Zionists” ingratiating themselves with a racist and exploitative “white” establishment that keeps minorities down.T his politics is bad for all Americans, and Jewish Americans in particular. More and more, one sees the racialized language of the American left being applied to the Middle East conflict, wherein Israel (which is, in point of fact, one of the most racially diverse countries in the world) is referred to as a “white supremacist” state no different from that of apartheid South Africa. In a book just published by MIT Press, ornamented with a forward by Cornel West and entitled “Whites, Jews, and Us,” a French-Algerian political activist named Houria Bouteldja asks, “What can we offer white people in exchange for their decline and for the wars that will ensue?” Drawing the Jews into her race war, Bouteldja, according to the book’s jacket copy, “challenges widespread assumptions among the left in the United States and Europe—that anti-Semitism plays any role in Arab–Israeli conflicts, for example, or that philo-Semitism doesn’t in itself embody an oppressive position.” Jew-hatred is virtuous, and appreciation of the Jews is racism.
Few political activists of late have done more to racialize the Arab–Israeli conflict—and, through insidious extension of the American racial hierarchy, designate American Jews as oppressors—than the Brooklyn-born Arab activist Linda Sarsour. An organizer of the Women’s March, Sarsour has seamlessly insinuated herself into a variety of high-profile progressive campaigns, a somewhat incongruent position given her reactionary views on topics like women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. (“10 weeks of PAID maternity leave in Saudi Arabia,” she tweets. “Yes PAID. And ur worrying about women driving. Puts us to shame.”) Sarsour, who is of Palestinian descent, claims that one cannot simultaneously be a feminist and a Zionist, when it is the exact opposite that is true: No genuine believer in female equality can deny the right of Israel to exist. The Jewish state respects the rights of women more than do any of its neighbors. In an April 2017 interview, Sarsour said that she had become a high-school teacher for the purpose of “inspiring young people of color like me.” Just three months earlier, however, in a video for Vox, Sarsour confessed, “When I wasn’t wearing hijab I was just some ordinary white girl from New York City.” The donning of Muslim garb, then, confers a racial caste of “color,” which in turn confers virtue, which in turn confers a claim on political power.
This attempt to describe the Israeli–Arab conflict in American racial vernacular marks Jews as white (a perverse mirror of Nazi biological racism) and thus implicates them as beneficiaries of “structural racism,” “white privilege,” and the whole litany of benefits afforded to white people at birth in the form of—to use Ta-Nehisi Coates’s abstruse phrase—the “glowing amulet” of “whiteness.” “It’s time to admit that Arthur Balfour was a white supremacist and an anti-Semite,” reads the headline of a recent piece in—where else? —the Forward, incriminating Jewish nationalism as uniquely perfidious by dint of the fact that, like most men of his time, a (non-Jewish) British official who endorsed the Zionist idea a century ago held views that would today be considered racist. Reading figures like Bouteldja and Sarsour brings to mind the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner’s observation that “the racialization of the world has to be the most unexpected result of the antidiscrimination battle of the last half-century; it has ensured that the battle continuously re-creates the curse from which it is trying to break free.”
If Jews are white, and if white people—as a group—enjoy tangible and enduring advantages over everyone else, then this racially essentialist rhetoric ends up with Jews accused of abetting white supremacy, if not being white supremacists themselves. This is one of the overlooked ways in which the term “white supremacy” has become devoid of meaning in the age of Donald Trump, with everyone and everything from David Duke to James Comey to the American Civil Liberties Union accused of upholding it. Take the case of Ben Shapiro, the Jewish conservative polemicist. At the start of the school year, Shapiro was scheduled to give a talk at UC Berkeley, his alma matter. In advance, various left-wing groups put out a call for protest in which they labeled Shapiro—an Orthodox Jew—a “fascist thug” and “white supremacist.” An inconvenient fact ignored by Shapiro’s detractors is that, according to the ADL, he was the top target of online abuse from actual white supremacists during the 2016 presidential election. (Berkeley ultimately had to spend $600,000 protecting the event from leftist rioters.)
A more pernicious form of this discourse is practiced by left-wing writers who, insincerely claiming to have the interests of Jews at heart, scold them and their communal organizations for not doing enough in the fight against anti-Semitism. Criticizing Jews for not fully signing up with the “Resistance” (which in form and function is fast becoming the 21st-century version of the interwar Popular Front), they then slyly indict Jews for being complicit in not only their own victimization but that of the entire country at the hands of Donald Trump. The first and foremost practitioner of this bullying and rather artful form of anti-Semitism is Jeet Heer, a Canadian comic-book critic who has achieved some repute on the American left due to his frenetic Twitter activity and availability when the New Republic needed to replace its staff that had quit en masse in 2014. Last year, when Heer came across a video of a Donald Trump supporter chanting “JEW-S-A” at a rally, he declared on Twitter: “We really need to see more comment from official Jewish groups like ADL on way Trump campaign has energized anti-Semitism.”
But of course “Jewish groups” have had plenty to say about the anti-Semitism expressed by some Trump supporters—too much, in the view of their critics. Just two weeks earlier, the ADL had released a report analyzing over 2 million anti-Semitic tweets targeting Jewish journalists over the previous year. This wasn’t the first time the ADL raised its voice against Trump and the alt-right movement he emboldened, nor would it be the last. Indeed, two minutes’ worth of Googling would have shown Heer that his pronouncements about organizational Jewish apathy were wholly without foundation.4
It’s tempting to dismiss Heer’s observation as mere “concern trolling,” a form of Internet discourse characterized by insincere expressions of worry. But what he did was nastier. Immediately presented with evidence for the inaccuracy of his claims, he sneered back with a bit of wisdom from the Jewish sage Hillel the Elder, yet cast as mild threat: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” In other words: How can you Jews expect anyone to care about your kind if you don’t sufficiently oppose—as arbitrarily judged by moi, Jeet Heer—Donald Trump?
If this sort of critique were coming from a Jewish donor upset that his preferred organization wasn’t doing enough to combat anti-Semitism, or a Gentile with a proven record of concern for Jewish causes, it wouldn’t have turned the stomach. What made Heer’s interjection revolting is that, to put it mildly, he’s not exactly known for being sympathetic toward the Jewish plight. In 2015, Heer put his name to a petition calling upon an international comic-book festival to drop the Israeli company SodaStream as a co-sponsor because the Jewish state is “built on the mass ethnic cleansing of Palestinian communities and sustained through racism and discrimination.” Heer’s name appeared alongside that of Carlos Latuff, a Brazilian cartoonist who won second place in the Iranian government’s 2006 International Holocaust Cartoon Competition. For his writings on Israel, Heer has been praised as being “very good on the conflict” by none other than Philip Weiss, proprietor of the anti-Semitic hate site Mondoweiss.
In light of this track record, Heer’s newfound concern about anti-Semitism appeared rather dubious. Indeed, the bizarre way in which he expressed this concern—as, ultimately, a critique not of anti-Semitism per se but of the country’s foremost Jewish civil-rights organization—suggests he cares about anti-Semitism insofar as its existence can be used as a weapon to beat his political adversaries. And since the incorrigibly Zionist American Jewish establishment ranks high on that list (just below that of Donald Trump and his supporters), Heer found a way to blame it for anti-Semitism. And what does that tell you? It tells you that—presented with a 16-second video of a man chanting “JEW-S-A” at a Donald Trump rally—Heer’s first impulse was to condemn not the anti-Semite but the Jews.
Heer isn’t the only leftist (or New Republic writer) to assume this rhetorical cudgel. In a piece entitled “The Dismal Failure of Jewish Groups to Confront Trump,” one Stephen Lurie attacked the ADL for advising its members to stay away from the Charlottesville “Unite the Right Rally” and let police handle any provocations from neo-Nazis. “We do not have a Jewish organizational home for the fight against fascism,” he quotes a far-left Jewish activist, who apparently thinks that we live in the Weimar Republic and not a stable democracy in which law-enforcement officers and not the balaclava-wearing thugs of antifa maintain the peace. Like Jewish Communists of yore, Lurie wants to bully Jews into abandoning liberalism for the extreme left, under the pretext that mainstream organizations just won’t cut it in the fight against “white supremacy.” Indeed, Lurie writes, some “Jewish institutions and power players…have defended and enabled white supremacy.” The main group he fingers with this outrageous slander is the Republican Jewish Coalition, the implication being that this explicitly partisan Republican organization’s discrete support for the Republican president “enables white supremacy.”
It is impossible to imagine Heer, Lurie, or other progressive writers similarly taking the NAACP to task for its perceived lack of concern about racism, or castigating the Human Rights Campaign for insufficiently combating homophobia. No, it is only the cowardice of Jews that is condemned—condemned for supposedly ignoring a form of bigotry that, when expressed on the left, these writers themselves ignore or even defend. The logical gymnastics of these two New Republic writers is what happens when, at base, one fundamentally resents Jews: You end up blaming them for anti-Semitism. Blaming Jews for not sufficiently caring enough about anti-Semitism is emotionally the same as claiming that Jews are to blame for anti-Semitism. Both signal an envy and resentment of Jews predicated upon a belief that they have some kind of authority that the claimant doesn’t and therefore needs to undermine.T his past election, one could not help but notice how the media seemingly discovered anti-Semitism when it emanated from the right, and then only when its targets were Jews on the left. It was enough to make one ask where they had been when left-wing anti-Semitism had been a more serious and pervasive problem. From at least 1996 (the year Pat Buchanan made his last serious attempt at securing the GOP presidential nomination) to 2016 (when the Republican presidential nominee did more to earn the support of white supremacists and neo-Nazis than any of his predecessors), anti-Semitism was primarily a preserve of the American left. In that two-decade period—spanning the collapse of the Oslo Accords and rise of the Second Intifada to the rancorous debate over the Iraq War and obsession with “neocons” to the presidency of Barack Obama and the 2015 Iran nuclear deal—anti-Israel attitudes and anti-Semitic conspiracy made unprecedented inroads into respectable precincts of the American academy, the liberal intelligentsia, and the Democratic Party.
The main form that left-wing anti-Semitism takes in the United States today is unhinged obsession with the wrongs, real or perceived, of the state of Israel, and the belief that its Jewish supporters in the United States exercise a nefarious control over the levers of American foreign policy. In this respect, contemporary left-wing anti-Semitism is not altogether different from that of the far right, though it usually lacks the biological component deeming Jews a distinct and inferior race. (Consider the left-wing anti-Semite’s eagerness to identify and promote Jewish “dissidents” who can attest to their co-religionists’ craftiness and deceit.) The unholy synergy of left and right anti-Semitism was recently epitomized by former CIA agent and liberal stalwart Valerie Plame’s hearty endorsement, on Twitter, of an article written for an extreme right-wing website by a fellow former CIA officer named Philip Giraldi: “America’s Jews Are Driving America’s Wars.” Plame eventually apologized for sharing the article with her 50,000 followers, but not before insisting that “many neocon hawks are Jewish” and that “just FYI, I am of Jewish descent.”
The main fora in which left-wing anti-Semitism appears is academia. According to the ADL, anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses doubled from 2014 to 2015, the latest year that data are available. Writing in National Affairs, Ruth Wisse observes that “not since the war in Vietnam has there been a campus crusade as dynamic as the movement of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel.” Every academic year, a seeming surfeit of controversies erupt on campuses across the country involving the harassment of pro-Israel students and organizations, the disruption of events involving Israeli speakers (even ones who identify as left-wing), and blatantly anti-Semitic outbursts by professors and student activists. There was the Oberlin professor of rhetoric, Joy Karega, who posted statements on social media claiming that Israel had created ISIS and had orchestrated the murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris. There is the Rutgers associate professor of women’s and gender studies, Jasbir Puar, who popularized the ludicrous term “pinkwashing” to defame Israel’s LGBT acceptance as a massive conspiracy to obscure its oppression of Palestinians. Her latest book, The Right to Maim, academically peer-reviewed and published by Duke University Press, attacks Israel for sparing the lives of Palestinian civilians, accusing its military of “shooting to maim rather than to kill” so that it may keep “Palestinian populations as perpetually debilitated, and yet alive, in order to control them.”
One could go on and on about such affronts not only to Jews and supporters of Israel but to common sense, basic justice, and anyone who believes in the prudent use of taxpayer dollars. That several organizations exist solely for the purpose of monitoring anti-Israel and anti-Semitic agitation on American campuses attests to the prolificacy of the problem. But it’s unclear just how reflective these isolated examples of the college experience really are. A 2017 Stanford study purporting to examine the issue interviewed 66 Jewish students at five California campuses noted for “being particularly fertile for anti-Semitism and for having an active presence of student groups critical of Israel and Zionism.” It concluded that “contrary to widely shared impressions, we found a picture of campus life that is neither threatening nor alarmist…students reported feeling comfortable on their campuses, and, more specifically, comfortable as Jews on their campuses.” To the extent that Jewish students do feel pressured, the report attempted to spread the blame around, indicting pro-Israel activists alongside those agitating against it. “[Survey respondents] fear that entering political debate, especially when they feel the social pressures of both Jewish and non-Jewish activist communities, will carry social costs that they are unwilling to bear.”
Yet by its own admission, the report “only engaged students who were either unengaged or minimally engaged in organized Jewish life on their campuses.” Researchers made a study of anti-Semitism, then, by interviewing the Jews least likely to experience it. “Most people don’t really think I’m Jewish because I look very Latina…it doesn’t come up in conversation,” one such student said in an interview. Ultimately, the report revealed more about the attitudes of unengaged (and, thus, uninformed) Jews than about the state of anti-Semitism on college campuses. That may certainly be useful in its own right as a means of understanding how unaffiliated Jews view debates over Israel, but it is not an accurate marker of developments on college campuses more broadly.
A more extensive 2016 Brandeis study of Jewish students at 50 schools found 34 percent agreed at least “somewhat” that their campus has a hostile environment toward Israel. Yet the variation was wide; at some schools, only 3 percent agreed, while at others, 70 percent did. Only 15 percent reported a hostile environment towards Jews. Anti-Semitism was found to be more prevalent at public universities than private ones, with the determinative factor being the presence of a Students for Justice in Palestine chapter on campus. Important context often lost in conversations about campus anti-Semitism, and reassuring to those concerned about it, is that it is simply not the most important issue roiling higher education. “At most schools,” the report found, “fewer than 10 percent of Jewish students listed issues pertaining to either Jews or Israel as among the most pressing on campus.”F or generations, American Jews have depended on anti-Semitism’s remaining within a moral quarantine, a cordon sanitaire, and America has reliably kept this societal virus contained. While there are no major signs that this barricade is breaking down in the immediate future, there are worrying indications on the political horizon.
Surveying the situation at the international level, the declining global position of the United States—both in terms of its hard military and economic power relative to rising challengers and its position as a credible beacon of liberal democratic values—does not portend well for Jews, American or otherwise. American leadership of the free world, has, in addition to ensuring Israel’s security, underwritten the postwar liberal world order. And it is the constituent members of that order, the liberal democratic states, that have served as the best guarantor of the Jews’ life and safety over their 6,000-year history. Were America’s global leadership role to diminish or evaporate, it would not only facilitate the rise of authoritarian states like Iran and terrorist movements such as al-Qaeda, committed to the destruction of Israel and the murder of Jews, but inexorably lead to a worldwide rollback of liberal democracy, an outcome that would inevitably redound to the detriment of Jews.
Domestically, political polarization and the collapse of public trust in every American institution save the military are demolishing what little confidence Americans have left in their system and governing elites, not to mention preparing the ground for some ominous political scenarios. Widely cited survey data reveal that the percentage of American Millennials who believe it “essential” to live in a liberal democracy hovers at just over 25 percent. If Trump is impeached or loses the next election, a good 40 percent of the country will be outraged and susceptible to belief in a stab-in-the-back theory accounting for his defeat. Whom will they blame? Perhaps the “neoconservatives,” who disproportionately make up the ranks of Trump’s harshest critics on the right?
Ultimately, the degree to which anti-Semitism becomes a problem in America hinges on the strength of the antibodies within the country’s communal DNA to protect its pluralistic and liberal values. But even if this resistance to tribalism and the cult of personality is strong, it may not be enough to abate the rise of an intellectual and societal disease that, throughout history, thrives upon economic distress, xenophobia, political uncertainty, ethnic chauvinism, conspiracy theory, and weakening democratic norms.
1 Somewhat paradoxically, according to FBI crime statistics, the majority of religiously based hate crimes target Jews, more than double the amount targeting Muslims. This indicates more the commitment of the country’s relatively small number of hard-core anti-Semites than pervasive anti-Semitism.
4 The ADL has had to maintain a delicate balancing act in the age of Trump, coming under fire by many conservative Jews for a perceived partisan tilt against the right. This makes Heer’s complaint all the more ignorant — and unhelpful.
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Review of 'The Once and Future Liberal' By Mark Lilla
Lilla, a professor at Columbia University, tells us that “the story of how a successful liberal politics of solidarity became a failed pseudo-politics of identity is not a simple one.” And about this, he’s right. Lilla quotes from the feminist authors of the 1977 Combahee River Collective Manifesto: “The most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.” Feminists looked to instantiate the “radical” and electrifying phrase which insisted that “the personal is political.” The phrase, argues Lilla, was generally seen in “a somewhat Marxist fashion to mean that everything that seems personal is in fact political.”
The upshot was fragmentation. White feminists were deemed racist by black feminists—and both were found wanting by lesbians, who also had black and white contingents. “What all these groups wanted,” explains Lilla, “was more than social justice and an end to the [Vietnam] war. They also wanted there to be no space between what they felt inside and what they saw and did in the world.” He goes on: “The more obsessed with personal identity liberals become, the less willing they become to engage in reasoned political debate.” In the end, those on the left came to a realization: “You can win a debate by claiming the greatest degree of victimization and thus the greatest outrage at being subjected to questioning.”
But Lilla’s insights into the emotional underpinnings of political correctness are undercut by an inadequate, almost bizarre sense of history. He appears to be referring to the 1970s when, zigzagging through history, he writes that “no recognition of personal or group identity was coming from the Democratic Party, which at the time was dominated by racist Dixiecrats and white union officials of questionable rectitude.”
What is he talking about? Is Lilla referring to the Democratic Party of Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, and George McGovern? Is he referring obliquely to George Wallace? If so, why is Wallace never mentioned? Lilla seems not to know that it was the 1972 McGovern Democratic Convention that introduced minority seating to be set aside for blacks and women.
At only 140 pages, this is a short book. But even so, Lilla could have devoted a few pages to Frankfurt ideologist Herbert Marcuse and his influence on the left. In the 1960s, Marcuse argued that leftists and liberals were entitled to restrain centrist and conservative speech on the grounds that the universities had to act as a counterweight to society at large. But this was not just rhetoric; in the campus disruption of the early 1970s at schools such as Yale, Cornell, and Amherst, Marcuse’s ideals were pushed to the fore.
If Lilla’s argument comes off as flaccid, perhaps that’s because the aim of The Once and Future Liberal is more practical than principled. “The only way” to protect our rights, he tells the reader, “is to elect liberal Democratic governors and state legislators who’ll appoint liberal state attorneys.” According to Lilla, “the paradox of identity liberalism” is that it undercuts “the things it professes to want,” namely political power. He insists, rightly, that politics has to be about persuasion but then contradicts himself in arguing that “politics is about seizing power to defend the truth.” In other words, Lilla wants a better path to total victory.
Given what Lilla, descending into hysteria, describes as “the Republican rage for destruction,” liberals and Democrats have to win elections lest the civil rights of blacks, women, and gays are rolled back. As proof of the ever-looming danger, he notes that when the “crisis of the mid-1970s threatened…the country turned not against corporations and banks, but against liberalism.” Yet he gives no hint of the trail of liberal failures that led to the crisis of the mid-’70s. You’d never know reading Lilla, for example, that the Black Power movement intensified racial hostilities that were then further exacerbated by affirmative action and busing. And you’d have no idea that, at considerable cost, the poverty programs of the Great Society failed to bring poorer African Americans into the economic mainstream. Nor does Lilla deal with the devotion to Keynesianism that produced inflation without economic growth during the Carter presidency.
Despite his discursive ambling through the recent history of American political life, Lilla has a one-word explanation for identity politics: Reaganism. “Identity,” he writes, is “Reaganism for lefties.” What’s crucial in combating Reaganism, he argues, is to concentrate on our “shared political” status as citizens. “Citizenship is a crucial weapon in the battle against Reaganite dogma because it brings home that fact that we are part of a legitimate common enterprise.” But then he asserts that the “American right uses the term citizenship today as a means of exclusion.” The passage might lead the reader to think that Lilla would take up the question of immigration and borders. But he doesn’t, and the closing passages of the book dribble off into characteristic zigzags. Lilla tells us that “Black Lives Matter is a textbook example of how not to build solidarity” but then goes on, without evidence, to assert the accuracy of the Black Lives Matter claim that African-Americans have been singled out for police mistreatment.
It would be nice to argue that The Once and Future Liberal is a near miss, a book that might have had enduring importance if only it went that extra step. But Lilla’s passing insights on the perils of a politically correct identity politics drown in the rhetoric of conventional bromides that fill most of the pages of this disappointing book.
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n Athens several years ago, I had dinner with a man running for the national parliament. I asked him whether he thought he had a shot at winning. He was sure of victory, he told me. “I have hired a very famous political consultant from Washington,” he said. “He is the man who elected Reagan. Expensive. But the best.”
The political genius he then described was a minor political flunky I had met in Washington long ago, a more-or-less anonymous member of the Republican National Committee before he faded from view at the end of Ronald Reagan’s second term. Mutual acquaintances told me he still lived in a nice neighborhood in Northern Virginia, but they never could figure out what the hell he did to earn his money. (This is a recurring mystery throughout the capital.) I had to come to Greece to find the answer.
It is one of the dark arts of Washington, this practice of American political hacks traveling to faraway lands and suckering foreign politicians into paying vast sums for splashy, state-of-the-art, essentially worthless “services.” And it’s perfectly legal. Paul Manafort, who briefly managed Donald Trump’s campaign last summer, was known as a pioneer of the globe-trotting racket. If he hadn’t, as it were, veered out of his gutter into the slightly higher lane of U.S. presidential politics, he likely could have hoovered cash from the patch pockets of clueless clients from Ouagadougou to Zagreb for the rest of his natural life and nobody in Washington would have noticed.
But he veered, and now he and a colleague find themselves indicted by Robert Mueller, the Inspector Javert of the Russian-collusion scandal. When those indictments landed, they instantly set in motion the familiar scramble. Trump fans announced that the indictments were proof that there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians—or, in the crisp, emphatic phrasing of a tweet by the world’s Number One Trump Fan, Donald Trump: “NO COLLUSION!!!!” The Russian-scandal fetishists in the press corps replied in chorus: It’s still early! Javert required more time, and so will Mueller, and so will they.
A good Washington scandal requires a few essential elements. One is a superabundance of information. From these data points, conspiracy-minded reporters can begin to trace associations, warranted or not, and from the associations, they can infer motives and objectives with which, stretched together, they can limn a full-blown conspiracy theory. The Manafort indictment released a flood of new information, and at once reporters were pawing for nuggets that might eventually form a compelling case for collusion.
They failed to find any because Manafort’s indictment, in essence, involved his efforts to launder his profits from his international political work, not his work for the Trump campaign. Fortunately for the obsessives, another element is required for a good scandal: a colorful cast. The various Clinton scandals brought us Asian money-launderers and ChiCom bankers, along with an entire Faulkner-novel’s worth of bumpkins, sharpies, and backwoods swindlers, plus that intern in the thong. Watergate, the mother lode of Washington scandals, featured a host of implausible characters, from the central-casting villain G. Gordon Liddy to Sam Ervin, a lifelong segregationist and racist who became a hero to liberals everywhere.
Here, at last, is one area where the Russian scandal has begun to show promise. Manafort and his business partner seem too banal to hold the interest of anyone but a scandal obsessive. Beneath the pile of paper Mueller dumped on them, however, another creature could be seen peeking out shyly. This would be the diminutive figure of George Papadopoulos. An unpaid campaign adviser to Trump, Papadopoulos pled guilty to lying to the FBI about the timing of his conversations with Russian agents. He is quickly becoming the stuff of legend.
Papadopoulos is an exemplar of a type long known to American politics. He is the nebbish bedazzled by the big time—achingly ambitious, though lacking the skill, or the cunning, to climb the greasy pole. So he remains at the periphery of the action, ever eager to serve. Papadopoulos’s résumé, for a man under 30, is impressively padded. He said he served as the U.S. representative to the Model United Nations in 2012, though nobody recalls seeing him there. He boasted of a four-year career at the Hudson Institute, though in fact he spent one year there as an unpaid intern and three doing contract research for one of Hudson’s scholars. On his LinkedIn page, he listed himself as a keynote speaker at a Greek American conference in 2008, but in fact he participated only in a panel discussion. The real keynoter was Michael Dukakis.
With this hunger for achievement, real or imagined, Papadopoulos could not let a presidential campaign go by without climbing aboard. In late 2015, he somehow attached himself to Ben Carson’s campaign. He was never paid and lasted four months. His presence went largely unnoticed. “If there was any work product, I never saw it,” Carson’s campaign manager told Time. The deputy campaign manager couldn’t even recall his name. Then suddenly, in April 2016, Papadopoulos appeared on a list of “foreign-policy advisers” to Donald Trump—and, according to Mueller’s court filings, resolved to make his mark by acting as a liaison between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government.
While Mueller tells the story of Papadopoulos’s adventures in the dry, Joe Friday prose of a legal document, it could easily be the script for a Peter Sellers movie from the Cold War era. The young man’s résumé is enough to impress the campaign’s impressionable officials as they scavenge for foreign-policy advisers: “Hey, Corey! This dude was in the Model United Nations!”
Papadopoulus (played by Sellers) sets about his mission. A few weeks after signing on to the campaign, he travels to Europe, where he meets a mysterious “Professor” (Peter Ustinov). “Initially the Professor seemed uninterested in Papadopoulos,” says Mueller’s indictment. A likely story! Yet when Papadopoulus lets drop that he’s an adviser to Trump, the Professor suddenly “appeared to take great interest” in him. They arrange a meeting in London to which the Professor invites a “female Russian national” (Elke Sommer). Without much effort, the femme fatale convinces Papadopoulus that she is Vladimir Putin’s niece. (“I weel tell z’American I em niece of Great Leader! Zat idjut belief ennytink!”) Over the next several months our hero sends many emails to campaign officials and to the Professor, trying to arrange a meeting between them. As far we know from the indictment, nothing came of his mighty efforts.
And there matters lay until January 2017, when the FBI came calling. Agents asked Papadopoulos about his interactions with the Russians. Even though he must have known that hundreds of his emails on the subject would soon be available to the FBI, he lied and told the agents that the contacts had occurred many months before he joined the campaign. History will record Papadopoulos as the man who forgot that emails carry dates on them. After the FBI interview, according to the indictment, he tried to destroy evidence with the same competence he has brought to his other endeavors. He closed his Facebook account, on which several communications with the Russians had taken place. He threw out his old cellphone. (That should do it!) After that, he began wearing a blindfold, on the theory that if he couldn’t see the FBI, the FBI couldn’t see him.
I made that last one up, obviously. For now, the great hope of scandal hobbyists is that Papadopoulus was wearing a wire between the time he secretly pled guilty and the time his plea was made public. This would have allowed him to gather all kinds of incriminating dirt in conversations with former colleagues. And the dirt is there, all right, as the Manafort indictment proves. Unfortunately for our scandal fetishists, so far none of it shows what their hearts most desire: active collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.
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An affair to remember
All this changed with the release in 1967 of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and Mike Nichols’s The Graduate. These two films, made in nouveau European style, treated familiar subjects—a pair of Depression-era bank robbers and a college graduate in search of a place in the adult world—in an unmistakably modern manner. Both films were commercial successes that catapulted their makers and stars into the top echelon of what came to be known as “the new Hollywood.”
Bonnie and Clyde inaugurated a new era in which violence on screen simultaneously became bloodier and more aestheticized, and it has had enduring impact as a result. But it was The Graduate that altered the direction of American moviemaking with its specific appeal to younger and hipper moviegoers who had turned their backs on more traditional cinematic fare. When it opened in New York in December, the movie critic Hollis Alpert reported with bemusement that young people were lining up in below-freezing weather to see it, and that they showed no signs of being dismayed by the cold: “It was as though they all knew they were going to see something good, something made for them.”
The Graduate, whose aimless post-collegiate title character is seduced by the glamorous but neurotic wife of his father’s business partner, is part of the common stock of American reference. Now, a half-century later, it has become the subject of a book-length study, Beverly Gray’s Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How The Graduate Became the Touchstone of a Generation.1 As is so often the case with pop-culture books, Seduced by Mrs. Robinson is almost as much about its self-absorbed Baby Boomer author (“The Graduate taught me to dance to the beat of my own drums”) as its subject. It has the further disadvantage of following in the footsteps of Mark Harris’s magisterial Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (2008), in which the film is placed in the context of Hollywood’s mid-’60s cultural flux. But Gray’s book offers us a chance to revisit this seminal motion picture and consider just why it was that The Graduate spoke to Baby Boomers in a distinctively personal way.T he Graduate began life in 1963 as a novella of the same name by Charles Webb, a California-born writer who saw his book not as a comic novel but as a serious artistic statement about America’s increasingly disaffected youth. It found its way into the hands of a producer named Lawrence Turman who saw The Graduate as an opportunity to make the cinematic equivalent of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Turman optioned the book, then sent it to Mike Nichols, who in 1963 was still best known for his comic partnership with Elaine May but had just made his directorial debut with the original Broadway production of Barefoot in the Park.
Both men saw that The Graduate posed a problem to anyone seeking to put it on the screen. In Turman’s words, “In the book the character of Benjamin Braddock is sort of a whiny pain in the fanny [whom] you want to shake or spank.” To this end, they turned to Buck Henry, who had co-created the popular TV comedy Get Smart with Mel Brooks, to write a screenplay that would retain much of Webb’s dryly witty dialogue (“I think you’re the most attractive of all my parents’ friends”) while making Benjamin less priggish.
Nichols’s first major act was casting Dustin Hoffman, an obscure New York stage actor pushing 30, for the title role. No one but Nichols seems to have thought him suitable in any way. Not only was Hoffman short and nondescript-looking, but he was unmistakably Jewish, whereas Benjamin is supposedly the scion of a newly monied WASP family from southern California. Nevertheless, Nichols decided he wanted “a short, dark, Jewish, anomalous presence, which is how I experience myself,” in order to underline Benjamin’s alienation from the world of his parents.
Nichols filled the other roles in equally unexpected ways. He hired the Oscar winner Anne Bancroft, only six years Hoffman’s senior, to play the unbalanced temptress who lures Benjamin into her bed, then responds with volcanic rage when he falls in love with her beautiful daughter Elaine. He and Henry also steered clear of on-screen references to the campus protests that had only recently started to convulse America. Instead, he set The Graduate in a timeless upper-middle-class milieu inhabited by people more interested in social climbing than self-actualization—the same milieu from which Benjamin is so alienated that he is reduced to near-speechlessness whenever his family and their friends ask him what he plans to do now that he has graduated.
The film’s only explicit allusion to its cultural moment is the use on the soundtrack of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” the painfully earnest anthem of youthful angst that is for all intents and purposes the theme song of The Graduate. Nevertheless, Henry’s screenplay leaves little doubt that the film was in every way a work of its time and place. As he later explained to Mark Harris, it is a study of “the disaffection of young people for an environment that they don’t seem to be in sync with.…Nobody had made a film specifically about that.”
This aspect of The Graduate is made explicit in a speech by Benjamin that has no direct counterpart in the novel: “It’s like I was playing some kind of game, but the rules don’t make any sense to me. They’re being made up by all the wrong people. I mean, no one makes them up. They seem to make themselves up.”
The Graduate was Nichols’s second film, following his wildly successful movie version of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Albee’s play was a snarling critique of the American dream, which he believed to be a snare and a delusion. The Graduate had the same skeptical view of postwar America, but its pessimism was played for laughs. When Benjamin is assured by a businessman in the opening scene that the secret to success in America is “plastics,” we are meant to laugh contemptuously at the smugness of so blinkered a view of life. Moreover, the contempt is as real as the laughter: The Graduate has it both ways. For the same reason, the farcical quality of the climactic scene (in which Benjamin breaks up Elaine’s marriage to a handsome young WASP and carts her off to an unknown fate) is played without musical underscoring, a signal that what Benjamin is doing is really no laughing matter.
The youth-oriented message of The Graduate came through loud and clear to its intended audience, which paid no heed to the mixed reviews from middle-aged reviewers unable to grasp what Nichols and Henry were up to. Not so Roger Ebert, the newly appointed 25-year-old movie critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, who called The Graduate “the funniest American comedy of the year…because it has a point of view. That is to say, it is against something.”
Even more revealing was the response of David Brinkley, then the co-anchor of NBC’s nightly newscast, who dismissed The Graduate as “frantic nonsense” but added that his college-age son and his classmates “liked it because it said about the parents and others what they would have said about us if they had made the movie—that we are self-centered and materialistic, that we are licentious and deeply hypocritical about it, that we try to make them into walking advertisements for our own affluence.”
A year after the release of The Graduate, a film-industry report cited in Pictures at a Revolution revealed that “48 percent of all movie tickets in America were now being sold to filmgoers under the age of 24.” A very high percentage of those tickets were to The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde. At long last, Hollywood had figured out what the Baby Boomers wanted to see.A nd how does The Graduate look a half-century later? To begin with, it now appears to have been Mike Nichols’s creative “road not taken.” In later years, Nichols became less an auteur than a Hollywood director who thought like a Broadway director, choosing vehicles of solid middlebrow-liberal appeal and serving them faithfully without imposing a strong creative vision of his own. In The Graduate, by contrast, he revealed himself to be powerfully aware of the same European filmmaking trends that shaped Bonnie and Clyde. Within a naturalistic framework, he deployed non-naturalistic “new wave” cinematographic techniques with prodigious assurance—and he was willing to end The Graduate on an ambiguous note instead of wrapping it up neatly and pleasingly, letting the camera linger on the unsure faces of Hoffman and Ross as they ride off into an unsettling future.
It is this ambiguity, coupled with Nichols’s prescient decision not to allow The Graduate to become a literal portrayal of American campus life in the troubled mid-’60s, that has kept the film fresh. But The Graduate is fresh in a very particular way: It is a young person’s movie, the tale of a boy-man terrified by the prospect of growing up to be like his parents. Therein lay the source of its appeal to young audiences. The Graduate showed them what they, too, feared most, and hinted at a possible escape route.
In the words of Beverly Gray, who saw The Graduate when it first came out in 1967: “The Graduate appeared in movie houses just as we young Americans were discovering how badly we wanted to distance ourselves from the world of our parents….That polite young high achiever, those loving but smothering parents, those comfortable but slightly bland surroundings: They combined to form an only slightly exaggerated version of my own cozy West L.A. world.”
Yet to watch The Graduate today—especially if you first saw it when much younger—is also to be struck by the extreme unattractiveness of its central character. Hoffman plays Benjamin not as the comically ineffectual nebbish of Jewish tradition but as a near-catatonic robot who speaks by turns in a flat monotone and a frightened nasal whine. It is impossible to understand why Mrs. Robinson would want to go to bed with such a mousy creature, much less why Elaine would run off with him—an impression that has lately acquired an overlay of retrospective irony in the wake of accusations that Hoffman has sexually harassed female colleagues on more than one occasion. Precisely because Benjamin is so unlikable, it is harder for modern-day viewers to identify with him in the same way as did Gray and her fellow Boomers. To watch a Graduate-influenced film like Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming (1995), a poignant romantic comedy about a group of Gen-X college graduates who deliberately choose not to get on with their lives, is to see a closely similar dilemma dramatized in an infinitely more “relatable” way, one in which the crippling anxiety of the principal characters is presented as both understandable and pitiable, thus making it funnier.
Be that as it may, The Graduate is a still-vivid snapshot of a turning point in American cultural history. Before Benjamin Braddock, American films typically portrayed men who were not overgrown, smooth-faced children but full-grown adults, sometimes misguided but incontestably mature. After him, permanent immaturity became the default position of Hollywood-style masculinity.
For this reason, it will be interesting to see what the Millennials, so many of whom demand to be shielded from the “triggering” realities of adult life, make of The Graduate if and when they come to view it. I have a feeling that it will speak to a fair number of them far more persuasively than it did to those of us who—unlike Benjamin Braddock—longed when young to climb the high hill of adulthood and see for ourselves what awaited us on the far side.
1 Algonquin, 278 pages
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“I think that’s best left to states and locales to decide,” DeVos replied. “If the underlying question is . . .”
Murphy interrupted. “You can’t say definitively today that guns shouldn’t be in schools?”
“Well, I will refer back to Senator Enzi and the school that he was talking about in Wapiti, Wyoming, I think probably there, I would imagine that there’s probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies.”
Murphy continued his line of questioning unfazed. “If President Trump moves forward with his plan to ban gun-free school zones, will you support that proposal?”
“I will support what the president-elect does,” DeVos replied. “But, senator, if the question is around gun violence and the results of that, please know that my heart bleeds and is broken for those families that have lost any individual due to gun violence.”
Because all this happened several million outrage cycles ago, you may have forgotten what happened next. Rather than mention DeVos’s sympathy for the victims of gun violence, or her support for federalism, or even her deference to the president, the media elite fixated on her hypothetical aside about grizzly bears.
“Betsy DeVos Cites Grizzly Bears During Guns-in-Schools Debate,” read the NBC News headline. “Citing grizzlies, education nominee says states should determine school gun policies,” reported CNN. “Sorry, Betsy DeVos,” read a headline at the Atlantic, “Guns Aren’t a Bear Necessity in Schools.”
DeVos never said that they were, of course. Nor did she “cite” the bear threat in any definitive way. What she did was decline the opportunity to make a blanket judgment about guns and schools because, in a continent-spanning nation of more than 300 million people, one standard might not apply to every circumstance.
After all, there might be—there are—cases when guns are necessary for security. Earlier this year, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe signed into law a bill authorizing some retired police officers to carry firearms while working as school guards. McAuliffe is a Democrat.
In her answer to Murphy, DeVos referred to a private meeting with Senator Enzi, who had told her of a school in Wyoming that has a fence to keep away grizzly bears. And maybe, she reasoned aloud, the school might have a gun on the premises in case the fence doesn’t work.
As it turns out, the school in Wapiti is gun-free. But we know that only because the Washington Post treated DeVos’s offhand remark as though it were the equivalent of Alexander Butterfield’s revealing the existence of the secret White House tapes. “Betsy DeVos said there’s probably a gun at a Wyoming school to ward off grizzlies,” read the Post headline. “There isn’t.” Oh, snap!
The article, like the one by NBC News, ended with a snarky tweet. The Post quoted user “Adam B.,” who wrote, “‘We need guns in schools because of grizzly bears.’ You know what else stops bears? Doors.” Clever.
And telling. It becomes more difficult every day to distinguish between once-storied journalistic institutions and the jabbering of anonymous egg-avatar Twitter accounts. The eagerness with which the press misinterprets and misconstrues Trump officials is something to behold. The “context” the best and brightest in media are always eager to provide us suddenly goes poof when the opportunity arises to mock, impugn, or castigate the president and his crew. This tendency is especially pronounced when the alleged gaffe fits neatly into a prefabricated media stereotype: that DeVos is unqualified, say, or that Rick Perry is, well, Rick Perry.
On November 2, the secretary of energy appeared at an event sponsored by Axios.com and NBC News. He described a recent trip to Africa:
It’s going to take fossil fuels to push power out to those villages in Africa, where a young girl told me to my face, “One of the reasons that electricity is so important to me is not only because I won’t have to try to read by the light of a fire, and have those fumes literally killing people, but also from the standpoint of sexual assault.” When the lights are on, when you have light, it shines the righteousness, if you will, on those types of acts. So from the standpoint of how you really affect people’s lives, fossil fuels is going to play a role in that.
This heartfelt story of the impact of electrification on rural communities was immediately distorted into a metaphor for Republican ignorance and cruelty.
“Energy Secretary Rick Perry Just Made a Bizarre Claim About Sexual Assault and Fossil Fuels,” read the Buzzfeed headline. “Energy Secretary Rick Perry Says Fossil Fuels Can Prevent Sexual Assault,” read the headline from NBC News. “Rick Perry Says the Best Way to Prevent Rape Is Oil, Glorious Oil,” said the Daily Beast.
“Oh, that Rick Perry,” wrote Gail Collins in a New York Times column. “Whenever the word ‘oil’ is mentioned, Perry responds like a dog on the scent of a hamburger.” You will note that the word “oil” is not mentioned at all in Perry’s remarks.
You will note, too, that what Perry said was entirely commonsensical. While the precise relation between public lighting and public safety is unknown, who can doubt that brightly lit areas feel safer than dark ones—and that, as things stand today, cities and towns are most likely to be powered by fossil fuels? “The value of bright street lights for dispirited gray areas rises from the reassurance they offer to some people who need to go out on the sidewalk, or would like to, but lacking the good light would not do so,” wrote Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. “Thus the lights induce these people to contribute their own eyes to the upkeep of the street.” But c’mon, what did Jane Jacobs know?
No member of the Trump administration so rankles the press as the president himself. On the November morning I began this column, I awoke to outrage that President Trump had supposedly violated diplomatic protocol while visiting Japan and its prime minister, Shinzo Abe. “President Trump feeds fish, winds up pouring entire box of food into koi pond,” read the CNN headline. An article on CBSNews.com headlined “Trump empties box of fish food into Japanese koi pond” began: “President Donald Trump’s visit to Japan briefly took a turn from formal to fishy.” A Bloomberg reporter traveling with the president tweeted, “Trump and Abe spooning fish food into a pond. (Toward the end, @potus decided to just dump the whole box in for the fish).”
Except that’s not what Trump “decided.” In fact, Trump had done exactly what Abe had done a few seconds before. That fact was buried in write-ups of the viral video of Trump and the fish. “President Trump was criticized for throwing an entire box of fish food into a koi pond during his visit to Japan,” read a Tweet from the New York Daily News, linking to a report on phony criticism Trump received because of erroneous reporting from outlets like the News.
There’s an endless, circular, Möbius-strip-like quality to all this nonsense. Journalists are so eager to catch the president and his subordinates doing wrong that they routinely traduce the very canons of journalism they are supposed to hold dear. Partisan and personal animus, laziness, cynicism, and the oversharing culture of social media are a toxic mix. The press in 2017 is a lot like those Japanese koi fish: frenzied, overstimulated, and utterly mindless.
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Review of 'Lessons in Hope' By George Weigel
Standing before the eternal flame, a frail John Paul shed silent tears for 6 million victims, including some of his own childhood friends from Krakow. Then, after reciting verses from Psalm 31, he began: “In this place of memories, the mind and heart and soul feel an extreme need for silence. … Silence, because there are no words strong enough to deplore the terrible tragedy of the Shoah.” Parkinson’s disease strained his voice, but it was clear that the pope’s irrepressible humanity and spiritual strength had once more stood him in good stead.
George Weigel watched the address from NBC’s Jerusalem studios, where he was providing live analysis for the network. As he recalls in Lessons in Hope, his touching and insightful memoir of his time as the pope’s biographer, “Our newsroom felt the impact of those words, spoken with the weight of history bearing down on John Paul and all who heard him: normally a place of bedlam, the newsroom fell completely silent.” The pope, he writes, had “invited the world to look, hard, at the stuff of its redemption.”
Weigel, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, published his biography of John Paul in two volumes, Witness to Hope (1999) and The End and the Beginning (2010). His new book completes a John Paul triptych, and it paints a more informal, behind-the-scenes portrait. Readers, Catholic and otherwise, will finish the book feeling almost as though they knew the 264th successor of Peter. Lessons in Hope is also full of clerical gossip. Yet Weigel never loses sight of his main purpose: to illuminate the character and mind of the “emblematic figure of the second half of the twentieth century.”
The book’s most important contribution comes in its restatement of John Paul’s profound political thought at a time when it is sorely needed. Throughout, Weigel reminds us of the pope’s defense of the freedom of conscience; his emphasis on culture as the primary engine of history; and his strong support for democracy and the free economy.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the pope continued to promote these ideas in such encyclicals as Centesimus Annus. The 1991 document reiterated the Church’s opposition to socialist regimes that reduce man to “a molecule within the social organism” and trample his right to earn “a living through his own initiative.” Centesimus Annus also took aim at welfare states for usurping the role of civil society and draining “human energies.” The pope went on to explain the benefits, material and moral, of free enterprise within a democratic, rule-of-law framework.
Yet a libertarian manifesto Centesimus Annus was not. It took note of free societies’ tendency to breed spiritual poverty, materialism, and social incohesion, which in turn could lead to soft totalitarianism. John Paul called on state, civil society, and people of God to supply the “robust public moral culture” (in Weigel’s words) that would curb these excesses and ensure that free-market democracies are ordered to the common good.
When Weigel emerged as America’s preeminent interpreter of John Paul, in the 1980s and ’90s, these ideas were ascendant among Catholic thinkers. In addition to Weigel, proponents included the philosopher Michael Novak and Father Richard John Neuhaus of First Things magazine (both now dead). These were faithful Catholics (in Neuhaus’s case, a relatively late convert) nevertheless at peace with the free society, especially the American model. They had many qualms with secular modernity, to be sure. But with them, there was no question that free societies and markets are preferable to unfree ones.
How things have changed. Today all the energy in those Catholic intellectual circles is generated by writers and thinkers who see modernity as beyond redemption and freedom itself as the problem. For them, the main question is no longer how to correct the free society’s course (by shoring up moral foundations, through evangelization, etc.). That ship has sailed or perhaps sunk, according to this view. The challenges now are to protect the Church against progressivism’s blows and to see beyond the free society as a political horizon.
Certainly the trends that worried John Paul in Centesimus Annus have accelerated since the encyclical was issued. “The claim that agnosticism and skeptical relativism are the philosophy and the basic attitude which correspond to democratic forms of political life” has become even more hegemonic than it was in 1991. “Those who are convinced that they know the truth and firmly adhere to it” increasingly get treated as ideological lepers. And with the weakening of transcendent truths, ideas are “easily manipulated for reasons of power.”
Thus a once-orthodox believer finds himself or herself compelled to proclaim that there is no biological basis to gender; that men can menstruate and become pregnant; that there are dozens of family forms, all as valuable and deserving of recognition as the conjugal union of a man and a woman; and that speaking of the West’s Judeo-Christian patrimony is tantamount to espousing white supremacy. John Paul’s warnings read like a description of the present.
The new illiberal Catholics—a label many of these thinkers embrace—argue that these developments aren’t a distortion of the idea of the free society but represent its very essence. This is a mistake. Basic to the free society is the freedom of conscience, a principle enshrined in democratic constitutions across the West and, I might add, in the Catholic Church’s post–Vatican II magisterium. Under John Paul, religious liberty became Rome’s watchword in the fight against Communist totalitarianism, and today it is the Church’s best weapon against the encroachments of secular progressivism. The battle is far from lost, moreover. There is pushback in the courts, at the ballot box, and online. Sometimes it takes demagogic forms that should discomfit people of faith. Then again, there is a reason such pushback is called “reaction.”
A bigger challenge for Catholics prepared to part ways with the free society as an ideal is this: What should Christian politics stand for in the 21st century? Setting aside dreams of reuniting throne and altar and similar nostalgia, the most cogent answer offered by Catholic illiberalism is that the Church should be agnostic with respect to regimes. As Harvard’s Adrian Vermeule has recently written, Christians should be ready to jettison all “ultimate allegiances,” including to the Constitution, while allying with any party or regime when necessary.
What at first glance looks like an uncompromising Christian politics—cunning, tactical, and committed to nothing but the interests of the Church—is actually a rather passive vision. For a Christianity that is “radically flexible” in politics is one that doesn’t transform modernity from within. In practice, it could easily look like the Vatican Ostpolitik diplomacy that sought to appease Moscow before John Paul was elected.
Karol Wojtya discarded Ostpolitik as soon as he took the Petrine office. Instead, he preached freedom and democracy—and meant it. Already as archbishop of Krakow under Communism, he had created free spaces where religious and nonreligious dissidents could engage in dialogue. As pope, he expressed genuine admiration for the classically liberal and decidedly secular Vaclav Havel. He hailed the U.S. Constitution as the source of “ordered freedom.” And when, in 1987, the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet asked him why he kept fussing about democracy, seeing as “one system of government is as good as another,” the pope responded: No, “the people have a right to their liberties, even if they make mistakes in exercising them.”
The most heroic and politically effective Christian figure of the 20th century, in other words, didn’t follow the path of radical flexibility. His Polish experience had taught him that there are differences between regimes—that some are bound to uphold conscience and human dignity, even if they sometimes fall short of these commitments, while others trample rights by design. The very worst of the latter kind could even whisk one’s boyhood friends away to extermination camps. There could be no radical Christian flexibility after the Holocaust.