Monday, December 21, 2015

Tough Guys and Little Men

Someone I know -- herself a refugee from Nazi Germany when she was a child -- was talking with me the other day about the parlous state of American democracy. What frightens her most, she said, are not the bigoted things that come out of Donald Trump's mouth or the incendiary intentions that Ted Cruz announces, but "the roar that greets them."

Indeed. That roar is more unsettling than the rest of it, and it's a queasy feeling that results from hearing it. You know the scenes I mean. Trump's remarks about Muslims, which are by now sufficiently notorious. Cruz's repeated calls for "carpet bombing" and "saturation bombing" of IS-held territory (the NYT ran a rather curious editorial in response to these comments, which argued Cruz's declared "strategy" was deeply at odds with America's military tradition. Would that it were so! In truth, Cruz's ideas are all too close to realizable). Trump's talk of setting out to kill the families of terrorists (What? "They can kill us but we can't kill them?" he said in the last debate). And after each one, the same furious bellow of approval from the crowd.

Ours is plainly another "tough guy" moment (though when is it not, in our politics?) Even the New York Times was opining the other day that Bernie Sanders demonstrated weakness and a lack of "moxie" in the last Democratic debate, by behaving respectfully toward his opponents and, still more, for that apology he gave to Hilary Clinton for his campaign team's breach of her data (however rapidly the confession may have tumbled forth ("yesIapologize") and however unclear it was whether he was actually taking personal responsibility for it, per se). The writers offering this analysis didn't seem to realize how much more strength it takes to admit to a wrongdoing than to deny it, nor how much more self-mastery it requires to summarize an opponent's position respectfully before disagreeing with it than to misrepresent and score cheap shots. "Tough guys" are the weak ones, the fools, the people who are responsible for every great atrocity and misery in the world. Why would anyone want anything at all to do with them? People should be running in the opposite direction by this point, not roaring approbation.

What can be in the mind of the people doing the roaring? These are plainly angry people, who regard themselves as someone else's victims. But what makes people who experience themselves as powerless want to be bowled over all the more by power? Why should men who are forever decrying their bullying at the hands of the world, of the media, of "political correctness," want to sell themselves out utterly to bullies?

It is taken for granted as a psychological truth that when people feel vulnerable and subject to malignant external forces, they will be more easily seduced by the "tough guys" in the room. I want to restore for a second, though, a sense of what an odd paradox that really is. It is actually quite bizarre that the man who feels (and resents) most keenly his own lack of power should for that very reason adulate and grovel before the most brazen and crass wielders of power. Let us then reassume for a moment the naive posture with respect to this human perversity, and ask why it takes place. Let us see if, once we do so, we are not better able to penetrate into the mind of the Roarers, the "likely GOP primary voters," the rank-and-file.


Or do they not matter? Maybe the Roarers are not interesting since they are merely the subjects of rhetorical manipulation? Let us pause a moment to consider this "top-down" mode of analysis.

Of course it is true that someday someone is going to have to penetrate into the minds of the Trumps and Cruzes too. The bizarre and perfervid psychobiography that the world needs of the real estate magnate, reality TV star, minor celebrity, birther, quasi-fascist, GOP presidential front-runner, persecutor of black teenagers falsely charged with rape, former Democrat and opponent of the Iraq war whose monosyllabic name now glowers down upon every car and pedestrian on Chicago's State Street ("illuminating his dominions" (Neruda)) -- has yet to be written. Let us pray we all survive its subject's "career" so that one day we may read it.

It will, however, be a very hard book to write. It is a challenging imaginative exercise, I find, to think of Donald Trump as a human being with some sort of inner life-- though I know he must be such-- because he is so little of himself and so much a channel for the appetites and delusions of others. As Robert Lifton points out about other petty tyrants and their followers in his book on Aum Shinrikyo, all dictatorial gurus are in large part the creation of their disciples, even as they simultaneously deprive their disciples of all power and personal autonomy. The man who wields total power over others is made utterly powerless by that fact (a variant, I suppose, of the master-slave dialectic). Thus, at the same time that Trump ascends toward political power, he becomes ever more of a non-entity -- a blank canvass for the projections of followers. They deprive him of power, in the very act of empowering Trump, even as they disempower themselves and all the rest of us who may one day be his victims. 

We are all sufferers alike then of this process, but that is not the point. The point is that the mind at work in all this -- the mind animating the spiral-- is not Trump's mind, if he has one, it is the mind of the follower, the "Unknown Citizen" of Auden's poem, the "Face in the Crowd." This man, the Roarer, is the one who poses the real puzzle worthy of analysis.


The puzzle is this:

Why is it that the "little man," Wilhelm Reich once asked, time and again throughout history "esteems his enemies and murders his friends" (Wolfe trans.)? By his comment Reich did not mean (and I do not mean by repeating it) to imply any hoary Marxist notion of "class enemies" and false consciousness. I have no firm idea as to the socioeconomic composition of Trump and Cruz rallies, but I suspect it is far less blue collar than the media sniffily tends to assume. It seems to me much more likely that these "movements" are made up of the usual demographic clusters that form the rank-and-file of the American far right -- engineers, suburbanites, the extensively (if not "well-") educated: in other words, the same sorts of people who once held house parties for Barry Goldwater and who formed the bulk of the membership in the John Birch society (at least at the time Richard Hofstadter analyzed its composition). In most cases, these are people who actually possess a fair amount of social power-- and certainly quite a lot of social power relative to the "people swimming the Rio Grande" whom Ted Cruz contemptuously denigrates. I will have more to say on why this might be below.

It is clear enough, however, that whatever we might judge to be their "real status," the people at Trump and Cruz rallies harbor a deep resentment toward those in authority-- a sense that unseen forces are perpetually at work against them. Otherwise, why the rage? Why this intensity of fury?

It is this conspiracist attitude to life, and not any rational assessment of the many unfair disadvantages to which people actually are subjected in this world, that marks out the "little man" to whom Reich refers. "Little man"-hood for Reich is a psychological reality, not an economic one. It is a condition -- a pathology -- rather than a class characteristic. Reich's Little Men could be district attorneys and judges-- his "Little Women" Daughters of the American Revolution and wives of bank presidents. As Nabokov once reversed the cliché to arrive at the same idea: "A Chicago proletarian can be as Philistine as an English Duke." 

Having cleared this misunderstanding, let us see what we can learn from Reich's essay, which is written in the form of an "address" to the Little Man of the world.


Reich's Little Man, Listen! is a very strange literary product. For all it's psychological acuity and insight into the conspiratorial right-wing mindset, it reveals its author to be a victim of "Little Man" syndrome in his own right.  We must keep in mind that it dates from a period well into Reich's degeneration into sheer crackpotism. The essay is thus utterly riddled with signs of his increasing grandiosity and paranoia -- his belief that he has found the cure to cancer and the medical establishment is engaged in a conspiracy to silence him so as to keep themselves in business -- his conviction that he has discovered the primary orgasmic substance (and no, that is not a typo for "organic") that forms the true principle of all life, matter, and existence. Let us not forget that in addition to his skills as a psychoanalyst, Reich was also by this point in his life a UFO hunter and the inventor of the "orgone box." This goes some way toward explaining such an apparent non-sequitor in his essay as: "I have never suffered from constipation" (unlike the Little Men, it is implied) -- a line which belongs beside Jehovah's insistence in Jeremiah that he never commanded nor even thought of the idea of child sacrifice and L. Ron Hubbard's incantatory self-commanding phrase, "You do not need to masturbate," in the annals of question-begging denials. 

I suppose, however, that psychologists, like other people, tend to write best about the afflictions they can understand most directly. Reich, despite or perhaps because of his own little-man-hood, has some excellent things to say on the subject. We who are also little men at some level do well to listen, as the essay's title commands. 

What follows are largely my own ideas, not Reich's, but they add up to a kind of elaboration of his most striking observations.


The Little Man is everybody's victim. The intellectuals are after him. The feminists are after him. The guardians of political correctness have him pressed against the wall. So he believes, and the fact that intellectuals and academic culture do often treat people unfairly and derisively provides the minimal evidentiary scaffolding needed to sustain this kind of conspiratorial worldview. It does not change the fact, however, that the Little Man almost always has far more social power than his own victims. He views himself as persecuted, but over and again he is the one who does the persecuting. 

This point deserves some further elaboration. Is it not paradoxical, after all, that throughout history, it has been the least vulnerable that are most afraid, and the most vulnerable who are most the target of their fear? 

Always and in every age, the powerful have hounded out most ruthlessly and viciously those who were already most at their mercy -- the minorities, the poor, the immigrant and stranger and refugee. Perhaps it is because the powerful become isolated by their privilege. They lose contact and sympathy with the ordinary struggles of life. Perhaps they sense that their relative power depends on the powerlessness of others, and thus, they are strangely at the mercy of the powerless for the maintenance of their position. Whatever the reason, those most prone in every society to the conspiracist mindset and to the seductions of "tough guy" politics are almost always the somewhat well-off. By the same token, they seldom if ever seem to be those with the most right to complain about unfair treatment -- those who are actually the victims of persecution and discrimination. Even the terrorist movements around the world that are so often misdiagnosed by analysts and their own propaganda as expressions of the grievances of "the oppressed" or "the marginalized" are almost never that. West Germany's Red Army Faction and the American Weather Underground were composed of the overgrown children of attorneys and corporate executives. The Islamic State, those fascists of the Muslim world, seems to recruit as heavily from suburban teenagers, scientists and doctors as from any other demographic. ISIS's primary victims meanwhile are the oppressed and marginalized members of its own society-- Yezidis and Christians, Shiites and Turkmen, LGBT people and others.

Why do these Little Men, who view themselves as so harried and harmed, always do so much harrying and harming to others? Why don't they identify with the world's downtrodden, rather than doing all they can to trod them down? If we could ask him, the Little Man would not even comprehend the question. He is not aware he is doing any such thing.

Because he is always the victim in his own mind, the Little Man does not even realize he has the power to harm. "Who, me?" he asks. As Reich says, in the voice of the Little Man:
"'Who am I, what power have I [...]?’ I do my duty, I do what my boss tells me, and I do not meddle in high politics.’"
Reich replies to his Little Man:
"And when you drag thousands of men, women and children to the gas chambers, you also just do what you are told to do, is that it, Little Man? You are so harmless that you don’t even know what’s going on. You are only a poor devil who has nothing to say, who has no opinion of his own, and who are you anyhow to meddle in politics?"
The Little Man is innocent in spirit, even when he dresses in Klan robes and marches the goose-step. He only hurts others because he does not realize others are vulnerable to him as much if not more so than he is to them. After all, how could he form such a notion? His enemies are so many and so strong! What could he ever do to them, when they hold all the cards -- the feminists, the immigrants, the P.C. elite. Whatever political actions the Little Man undertakes are only for the sake of survival. If he kills and persecutes and hunts and "carpet bombs" cities, it is all done in "self-defense."

The Little Man's belief in his own victimhood is absolute. Anyone who has power (or imagined or perceived power) in any respect over him is of necessity acting against him. To the Little Man, life is a struggle in which every gain for one organism means the defeat of another. Any talent that he does not possess is an affront to his sense of self. Any happiness on another's part is a wound to his own.


Suppose all this is true, however, we still have to return to our original question: why should the Little Man time and again cede power to the Tough Guy? If he believes that any gain in authority for another is a loss of respect for himself, then why does he grant such absolute and despotic authority to the one "big man" he finds, i.e. to some crass, barrel-shaped tyrant?  

Richard Hofstadter, speaking of "pseudo-conservatives" who are very much like our Little Men, and using a terminology and argument partially borrowed from Adorno, attributes this self-defeating pattern to the traumatic effects of excessively strict child-rearing. When a child's normal "resistance and hostility" to the demands of parents are not permitted to find any "moderate outlet in give-and-take," he writes, they "have to be suppressed." The "enormous hostility to authority" that results, "which cannot be admitted to consciousness, calls forth a massive overcompensation, which is manifest in the form of extravagant submissiveness to strong power." 

In a way, however, this is less a solution to the paradox than a restatement of it. It also downplays the fact that, like all pathological conditions of the mind, the Little Man Syndrome has an inner logic and coherence to it. It is faithful to its own premisses, regardless of how these premisses first become planted in the mind.

The Little Man's authoritarianism is a product, and not a refutation, of his conspiracism. After all, if life really does have the character the Little Man attributes to it of naked and total struggle, and anyone with authority will use it solely to enrich himself and victimize others, and if at last there are no other possible models of human relationship available to us than these, then the Little Man himself is no "better," no more virtuous, than his perceived tormentors. To the contrary, the Little Man is quite a lot worse than them. He has lost the fight, and failed in the struggle -- that is the only explanation granted by his ideology for his sense of vulnerability. He may consciously believe himself to be more virtuous than his nemeses, but subconsciously he knows this is not a tenable conclusion to draw from his own axioms. He complains that others don't treat him "fairly," at the same time he loudly trumpets that he was never fool enough to believe in such watery concepts as "fairness" and "equality" and all those other "lies that the sly trot out" (Lawrence). He thinks other people are trying to delude him by pretending to believe in "ideals," even as he wishes to idealize himself and his own motives as pure. In short, he contradicts himself, and he does it time and again, because he knows and does not want to face the fact that if he is right, and he really is so powerless, then under the rubric of his own unforgiving ideology this can only be due to his own deficiencies. 

Thus, and above all, says Reich, the "Little Man" empowers "Tough Guys" because he loathes himself:
"He is proud of his great generals but not proud of himself. He admires the thought which he did not have and not the thought he did have. He believes in things all the more thoroughly the less he comprehends them, and does not believe in the correctness of those ideas, which he comprehends most easily."
The Little Man loathes himself because at root he doesn't believe he'd act any differently if he were in charge than the people he thinks are after him. Laboring under the axiom that life is merely a quest for power and gratification, he can't think of anything else he'd do with power than what Trump appears to do with it-- throw himself around, belittle people, pick on the vulnerable. If he were Trump for a day, god knows he'd rub everyone's noses in it too. Sensing this, he knows he can't really blame the powerful, the bullies, the persecutors. He can't even blame the academics and the P.C. media. If he were any of them, he'd show it off constantly. He'd be the first to introduce himself to the room as "Doctor." Think of Glenn Beck crying down the nation's pedants from in front of his blackboard!

The Little Man's sense of the world prevents him from believing that anyone might be different -- certainly not himself. He surrenders himself every time to the "tough guy" because he doesn't at last believe he deserves any better. He submits to the loudest power, because he thinks power is all there is. He sells himself out to the lowest bidder. He gives everything he has to creatures of insatiable appetite -- people who despise him, who would gladly destroy him-- because that is the only sort of being that he can imagine when he looks inside himself. As John Davidson writes:
I step into my heart and there I meet
A god-almighty devil singing small,
Who would like to shout and whistle in the street,
And squelch the passers flat against the wall;
If the whole world was a cake he had the power to take,
He would take it, ask for more, and eat them all.
Little Men will go on empowering Trump, they'll continue roaring for Cruz, so long as that "god-almighty devil" is the only thing they see in others and themselves. Someday one of them may even manage to annihilate the whole Earth, just as Davidson's poem predicts, whether it happens in the form of American Little Men "carpet-bombing" everyplace they can find, or ISIS Little Men smuggling doomsday weapons into major cities or otherwise escalating their genocidal crimes.

Unless, that is, we other Little Men and Little Women can find a way to look inside ourselves and find something other than an inner Trump. Such, I take it, is what Reich means by such passages as this:
"Little Man, [...] you are afraid of the power they promise you. You would know how to use this power. You dare not think that you ever might experience your self differently: free instead; open instead of tactical; loving openly instead of like a thief in the night." (Wolfe translation throughout)
As we've already seen, however, to be able to "experience your self differently," you must first experience others differently. To believe in ourselves, we must also believe in the capacity of others for goodness.


So, in this ugly, though let us hope fleeting, moment of terrorism and scapegoating around the world, we are thrown back upon the horns of a terrible and ancient dilemma: we fear other people because they have the power to destroy us-- yet the only way to save ourselves from destruction at their hands is to place a greater degree of trust in their humanity.

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