As soon as the Edward Snowden story broke, retail psychoanalysts in the media began to psychologize the whistle-blower, finding in his actions a tangled pathology of motives. Luckily, there’s been a welcome push-back from other journalists and bloggers.
The rush to psychologize people whose politics you dislike, particularly when those people commit acts of violence, has long been a concern of mine. I wrote about it just after 9/11, when the media put Mohamed Atta on the couch. (Forgive the long quotes that follow: they pretty much say all that I have to say on the topic—with some illustrative examples—so there’s no point in my rewriting them here.)
I also wrote about this phenomenon in this review of the New Yorker writer Jane Kramer’s Lone Patriot, her profile of the militia movement.
In October 1953, literary critic Leslie Fiedler delivered an exceptionally nasty eulogy for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in the pages of the London-based magazine Encounter. Though the Rosenbergs had been executed for conspiring to commit espionage, their real betrayal, claimed Fiedler, was of themselves. Committed Communists, the Rosenbergs did more than mouth the party line; they walked, talked, ate, drank, breathed and slept it. Nothing they said or did was peculiarly their own. “Their relationship to everything,” Fiedler wrote, “including themselves, was false.” Their execution was regrettable, but not particularly notable. Once they turned into marionettes, “what was there left to die?”
Fiedler’s performance stands out in the annals of literary cruelty, not for its heartlessness but for its pitch-perfect rendition of the liberal mind at bay. For whenever liberal intellectuals are confronted with political extremism, the knotty social intelligence that normally informs their work unravels. The radical is reduced to a true believer, his beliefs a litany of crazy proverbs, his personality an inscrutable paranoia. Whether the cause is communism or the Black Panthers, feminism or the abolitionists, the liberal resorts to a familiar ghost story—of the self, evacuated for the sake of an incoming ideology—where, as is true of all such tales, the main character is never the ghost but always the teller.
Kramer hunts for clues to these touchy forest warriors in the dank wood of individual psychology. She writes that John Pitner, the militia’s not so fearless leader, “hated to have to answer to other people.” His father was an off-balance disciplinarian. One of Pitner’s devotees never “had friends, or even a date, in high school.” Right-wing politics provide a stage for the insufficiently evolved to act out their personal, often adolescent afflictions. As Kramer writes of Pitner, “I sometimes wondered if the Washington State Militia wasn’t, at least in part, a way for him to rewrite the history of the Pitner family.” Reminiscent of Fiedler, she concludes that Pitner “didn’t have a life in any sense I recognized.”
She seems to find quaint and absurd Pitner’s belief that in the early days of the United States “the townspeople got together [and] if they wanted a new road, they all contributed money and they built a new road, if they wanted a new library, they all contributed money and built a new library,” unaware, apparently, that intellectuals from Tocqueville to Robert Putnam have believed much the same thing. That’s not to say that such statements are true (they’re not), but they scarcely denote some strange woodland mishegas.
Tromping through this political wilderness, Kramer falls prey to a New York strain of Tourette’s syndrome, ceaselessly remarking on the strangeness and ignorance of the Northwest, the provincialism and prejudice of the forest. Her sole field guide on such expeditions, which she frequently consults, contains familiar entries on the paranoid style of American politics and the authoritarian personality. The problem with such psychological arguments, of course, is that millions of men and women fit the profile but never join the militia. There are probably more than a few leaders of the Democratic Party who never had a date in high school. And need we even launch an inventory of the editorial staff at The New Yorker?
Lastly, I wrote about it at much greater length in “On Language and Violence: From Pathology to Politics,” a piece I did for Raritan in 2006. There, I wrote more generally about how intellectuals deal with violence committed by the radical right and left. But the same strictures apply to the journalistic response to Snowden.
Why is it that when confronted with extremist violence and its defenders, whether on the right or the left, analysts resort to the categories of psychology as opposed to politics, economics, or ideology? [Journalist William] Pfaff is certainly not alone in his approach: merely consider the recent round of psychoanalysis to which Al Qaeda has been subjected or Robert Lindner’s Cold War classic, The Fifty-Minute Hour, which featured an extended chapter on “Mac” the Communist. Psychological factors, of course, may influence anyone’s decision to take up arms or to speak on behalf of those who do. But those who invoke these factors tend to ignore the central tenet of their most subtle and acute analyst: that the normal person is merely a hysteric in disguise, that the rational is often irrationality congealed. If we are to go down the road of psychoanalyzing violence, why not put Henry Kissinger or the RAND Corporation on the couch too?
There is more than a question of consistency at stake here, for the choice of psychology as the preferred mode of explanation often reflects little more than our own political prejudices. Violence we favor is deemed strategic and realistic, a response to genuine political exigencies. Violence we reject is dismissed as fanatic and lunatic, the outward manifestation of some inner drama. What gets overlooked in such designations is that violence is a deeply human activity, reflecting a full range of concerns and considerations, requiring an empathic, though critical, attention to mind and world.
Every culture has its martyred heroes—from the first wave of soldiers at Omaha Beach, whose only goal was to wash ashore, dead but with their guns intact so that the next wave could use them, to Samson declaring that he would die with the Philistines—and its demonized enemies, its rational use of force and its psychopathic cult of violence. And in every culture it has been the job of intellectuals to keep people clear about the difference between the two. Mill did it for imperial Europe. Why should imperial America expect anything less (or more) from William Pfaff, let alone David Denby?
But perhaps we should expect our writers to do more than simply mirror the larger culture. After all, few intellectuals today divide the sexual world into regions of the normal and abnormal. Why can’t they throw away that map for violence too? Why not accept that people take up arms for a variety of reasons—some just, others unjust—and that while the choice of violence, as well as the means, may be immoral or illegitimate, it hardly takes a psychopath to make it?
In the same way that journalists call high-level leakers in the executive branch “White House officials” and low-level guys like Snowden “narcissists” or “losers,” so do they dole out accolades like “Secretary of State” to mass murderers like Henry Kissinger while holding the Snowden-like epithets in reserve for Al Qaeda, Communists, the Militia Movement, and the Weather Underground.
So where does that leave us? I’m not sure. As Jim Naureckas put it on my FB page: “Is the problem treating the retailers of violence as if they were psychotic or regarding violence wholesalers as though they were sane?