Edward Snowden’s Retail Psychoanalysts in the Media

18 Jun

As soon as the Edward Snowden story broke, retail psychoanalysts in the media began to psychologize the whistle-blower, identifying 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.

I also wrote about it 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.

19 Responses to “Edward Snowden’s Retail Psychoanalysts in the Media”

  1. samuel farber June 18, 2013 at 12:08 pm #

    Hello Corey, I loved this post. Can I suggest you look into Adorno’s “F” scale for a similar approach to psychologize political differences? Hyman Sheatsley wrote a devastating critique of the F scale approach in the volume Studies in the Scope and Method of the Authoritarian Personality. Hope you, Laura and Carole will have a great summer! Sam PS. By the way I loved the pictures and anecdotes about Carole you have posted on Facebook! Date: Tue, 18 Jun 2013 15:24:06 +0000 To: samuelfarber@hotmail.com

  2. joanna bujes June 18, 2013 at 12:29 pm #

    They can psychologize all they want. The reality is that Snowden has more class and intelligence under his left fingernail than all the pundits and dime store analysts combined. Kryptonite for the meritocracy he is.

  3. dearbalak June 18, 2013 at 1:17 pm #

    Reblogged this on Punkonomics and commented:
    “I am firm. You are stubborn. He is a pig-headed fool.” (Bertrand Russell)

  4. Jonny Butter June 18, 2013 at 1:30 pm #

    I don’t know what your agreement with them is, but I would find it interesting to see the comments this (excellent) post would draw over at CT, and hope you will consider posting it there if you may do.

    • Corey Robin June 18, 2013 at 1:57 pm #

      Okay, you persuaded me. Let the trolling begin!

      • jonnybutter June 18, 2013 at 3:21 pm #

        Oh yes – could be a good show!

  5. John Emerson June 18, 2013 at 3:00 pm #

    If you read Adorno’s part of “The Authoritarian Personality” you will be appalled. Besides his authoritarian types, he has several anti-authoritarian types, most of whom he evidently dislikes (including a lesbian protestor type). The good anti-authoritarian is an attractive young woman.

  6. jake the snake June 18, 2013 at 8:11 pm #

    As much as I hate to disagree with Isaac Asimov, he was wrong when he claimed that violence was the last refuge of the incompetent. Often it is the first refuge of the incompetent, and is rarely even the last resort of the competent, thought it usually is not the first.

    • jake the snake June 18, 2013 at 8:17 pm #

      Also too, I was as annoyed of the long distance analysis of W. Bush as I am of that of Obama. There is probably no public figure who does not demonstrate some characteristics of Narcissism. Not many non-publics don’t demonstrate at least some characteristics.

  7. AD Powell (@mischling2nd) June 18, 2013 at 10:17 pm #

    Unfortunately, there is nothing unusual in the claim that those who stand up to authority or demolish cherished myths must be “crazy.” The motives of the brave ones are always described as deranged or evil. They just “hate” the poor, oppressed powers that be and have no reason whatsoever to defame their innocent souls. That’s always been the line, hasn’t it?

    • Glenn June 19, 2013 at 11:27 am #

      Beautiful Souls: The Courage and Conscience of Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times, by Eyal Press, explores this issue.

      Those who conform to collective demands contrary to their consciences, criticize the whistle blower as being one who seeks his selfish interests, where the opposite is true: those who go along, being supportive of atrocities by their silence, retain the advantages of group membership while the whistle blower loses much.

  8. Dick Howard June 18, 2013 at 10:34 pm #

    Good to keep these alive, thanks, dh

  9. Donna June 19, 2013 at 2:14 am #

    “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.”

    It’s worth noting that the carnage caused by “legitimate” actors perpetrating violence is substantially higher than that of their “loser” counterparts. When you know (or have reason to believe) that history will write you as the winner, the sky is the limit!

    • BarryB June 21, 2013 at 5:24 pm #

      It’s worth noting that the carnage caused by “legitimate” actors perpetrating violence is substantially higher than that of their “loser” counterparts. When you know (or have reason to believe) that history will write you as the winner, the sky is the limit!

      And as you and yours will write all the histories most people pay attention to of what happened, no one will ever doubt that the winner was a paladin, and the loser, a black-hearted bastard who made Shakespeare’s Richard III look like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Even now, the process begins in the mainstream news media. I’ve seen the cover of Time with Snowden (though Time doesn’t even qualify any longer as news, does it?), and at least one major news source has suggested Snowden was paid heavily by the Chinese for his “betrayal.”

      • BarryB June 21, 2013 at 5:25 pm #

        That you and yours was not meant personally, nor directed at you, Donna. Only as an all-inclusive reflection on the winner-makes-all-the-histories mentality.

  10. Psychoanalizing violence one does not approve of?

    Hey, kids — can you say, “John Brown”?: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Brown_(abolitionist)#Viewpoints_of_historians

    Clearly, a guy who would take up arms against a confederation of States to help liberate from enslavement a race of people that most respectable others — inclulding some of his own countrypersons — deemed inferior and made by the Almighty Himself for such slavery, just had to be nuts!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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