23 November 2004

The mass psychology of Republicanism

I have three heaping servings of the dark psychosexual undercurrents of politics for you.

Mark Ames makes some very unhappy speculations about Bush voters in his recent essay The Spite Vote. (He later published a revised version of this essay.)

This is why [the left] will forever struggle to understand the one overriding mystery of why so many working- and middle-class white males vote against their own best interests.

I CAN TELL YOU WHY. They do so out of spite. Put your ear to the ground in this country, and you'll hear the toxic spite churning. It's partly the result of commercial propaganda and sexual desperation—a desperation far more common than is admitted. If you didn't know anything about how America's propaganda worked, you'd think that every citizen here experienced four-dimensional multiple orgasms with beautiful, creative, equally satisfied partners, morning, noon and night.

The wretched truth is that America is an erogenous no man's land. Most white males here (at least the straight ones) have either dismal sex lives or no sex lives at all. As bad as this hurts, the pain is compounded every time you expose yourself to the cultural lies that await you at every turn—that is, every waking hour and during deep REM sleep, when the subliminal messages kick in. This wretchedness leads to a desire for vengeance, to externalize the inner famine—it leads directly to the Republican camp.
non-millionaires who vote Republican, the so-called “Reagan Democrats,” know that the country is not theirs. They are mere wage-slave fodder, so their only hope is to vote for someone who makes the very happiest people's lives a little less happy. If I'm an obese 40-something white male living in Ohio or Nevada, locked into a permanent struggle with foreclosure, child support payments and outsourcing threats, then I'm going to vote for the guy who delivers a big greasy portion of misery to the Sarandon-Robbins dining room table, then brags about it on FoxNews. Even if it means hurting myself in the process.
SPITE VOTING IS not just an American problem; it's a flaw in democracies everywhere. When I lived in Kosovo in the late summer of 2000, I asked my Serb friends there if they thought Milosevic was going to win the upcoming Serbian presidential elections. Most were pessimistic. They told me of friends, young people even, who voted for Milosevic “just out of spite.” The Serbian spite voters believed that if the opposition got their way and Serbia became as tame and civilized as Luxembourg, all those college-educated Otpor protestors and pro-Western intellectuals would simply take the privileges for themselves. They didn't want caste-based happiness and its accompanying propaganda, so they voted for Milosevic precisely because he was wrong, because he was a vote against hope. Under Milosevic, nearly every Serb was fucked equally, and that suited some people, particularly some Serbian males, just fine.

George W. Bush and Milosevic have a lot in common.

Now I don't want to sound like I'm overstating the case. I don't believe that everyone who ever votes Republican is driven mainly by spite and deep psychosexual frustration and jealousy. But I think that Mark Ames is right that this is part of what's going on—think of the resonance that the meme of the “limosine liberals” in the “cultural elite” has for so many Americans.

There's a striking resemblence between that screed and what Wilhelm Reich, Freud's protégé, wrote in The Mass Psychologly of Fascism in 1942. (A book which the Surveillance Camera Players have conveniently summarized quite cunningly.) In “Preface to the Third Edition,” Reich says

The suppression of one's primitive material needs compasses a different result than the suppression of one's sexual needs. The former incites to rebellion, whereas the latter—inasmuch as it causes sexual needs to be repressed, withdraws them from consciousness and and anchors itself as a moral defense—prevents rebellion against both forms of suppression.
It is not only by means of this process that sexual repression strengthens political reaction and makes the individual in the masses passive and nonpolitical; it creates a secondary force in man's structure—an artificial interest, which actively supports the authoritarian order. When sexuality is prevented from attaining natural gratification, owing to the process of sexual repression, what happens is that it seeks various kinds of substituting gratifications. Thus, for instance, natural aggression is distorted into brutal sadism, which constitutes an essential part of the mass-psychological basis of those imperialistic wars that are instigated by a few.

Now bring it back to the Sontag essay about Abu Graib that I linked some time ago.

Is the real issue not the photographs themselves but what the photographs reveal to have happened to “suspects” in American custody? No: the horror of what is shown in the photographs cannot be separated from the horror that the photographs were taken—with the perpetrators posing, gloating, over their helpless captives. German soldiers in the Second World War took photographs of the atrocities they were committing in Poland and Russia, but snapshots in which the executioners placed themselves among their victims are exceedingly rare, as may be seen in a book just published, Photographing the Holocaust, by Janina Struk. If there is something comparable to what these pictures show it would be some of the photographs of black victims of lynching taken between the 1880's and 1930's, which show Americans grinning beneath the naked mutilated body of a black man or woman hanging behind them from a tree. The lynching photographs were souvenirs of a collective action whose participants felt perfectly justified in what they had done. So are the pictures from Abu Ghraib.
An erotic life is, for more and more people, that which can be captured in digital photographs and on video. And perhaps the torture is more attractive, as something to record, when it has a sexual component. It is surely revealing, as more Abu Ghraib photographs enter public view, that torture photographs are interleaved with pornographic images of American soldiers having sex with one another. In fact, most of the torture photographs have a sexual theme, as in those showing the coercing of prisoners to perform, or simulate, sexual acts among themselves. One exception, already canonical, is the photograph of the man made to stand on a box, hooded and sprouting wires, reportedly told he would be electrocuted if he fell off. Yet pictures of prisoners bound in painful positions, or made to stand with outstretched arms, are infrequent. That they count as torture cannot be doubted. You have only to look at the terror on the victim's face, although such “stress” fell within the Pentagon's limits of the acceptable. But most of the pictures seem part of a larger confluence of torture and pornography: a young woman leading a naked man around on a leash is classic dominatrix imagery. And you wonder how much of the sexual tortures inflicted on the inmates of Abu Ghraib was inspired by the vast repertory of pornographic imagery available on the Internet—and which ordinary people, by sending out Webcasts of themselves, try to emulate.
What formerly was segregated as pornography, as the exercise of extreme sadomasochistic longings—as in Pier Paolo Pasolini's last, near-unwatchable film, Salo (1975), depicting orgies of torture in the Fascist redoubt in northern Italy at the end of the Mussolini era—is now being normalized, by some, as high-spirited play or venting. To “stack naked men” is like a college fraternity prank, said a caller to Rush Limbaugh and the many millions of Americans who listen to his radio show. Had the caller, one wonders, seen the photographs? No matter. The observation —or is it the fantasy?—was on the mark. What may still be capable of shocking some Americans was Limbaugh's response: “Exactly!” he exclaimed. “Exactly my point. This is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation, and we're going to ruin people's lives over it, and we're going to hamper our military effort, and then we are going to really hammer them because they had a good time.” “They” are the American soldiers, the torturers. And Limbaugh went on: “You know, these people are being fired at every day. I'm talking about people having a good time, these people. You ever heard of emotional release?”

I'd add one little coda. This makes clear to me something about the ongoing kulturkamph.

To folks like the cheerful San Francisco libertines I know, it's absurd that anyone should think that dirty pictures are dangerous. Yes, much of American porn is both aesthetically and conceptually ugly, one might admit, but we can solve that problem by creating and enjoying beautiful, uplifting, joyful erotica. People understand the difference between fantasy and reality. They're just pictures, or words on paper, just fun.

True for folks who have other erotic outlets, perhaps. But in a culture with an unhappy ambivalence about eros, without other outlets? Where women have to get drunk to enjoy desire and being desired, where men are awash in frustrations at every level? Is not erotic art of any kind not a cruel taunt—be it Playboy, Mapplethorpe, Susie Bright, or pretty girls in beer commercials? Why are we making so much of the stuff? And where does the frustration finally surface?

What have we built here?


Anonymous said...

Hmm, interesting vis a vis the Audre Lorde essay I was just referencing this week... I think there may be something here.
- Yezida

Jonathan Korman said...

Oh, yeah: I noticed the confluence with your recent post before you even commented here on it, Yez. (And any other readers who just can't get enough eros+liberation, go check out her post and my extra bonus Reich quote in the comments there.)

Anonymous said...

"Your an idiot"

Jonathan Korman said...

Whoops, my link above to Yezida's post is bad. Corrected.