Wednesday, June 24, 2015

An either-or fixation grips the American culture in paralysis and adolescence

It was during a discussion with a guest teacher on the subject of William Golding's novel, Lord of the Flies, that the psychology professor guest detailed the three Freudian concepts of Ego, Super-Ego and Id. The young boys are stranded on a south pacific island following their plane crash, and they attempt to survive long enough to be picked up, ironically, by a warship during the Second World War.
Piggy, the fat kid with glasses, constantly whines, "What would auntie think?" as the articulate voice of the Super Ego, the critical parent, the authority among the savages. Finding the collective Ego, among the troop is no easy task, while the savage Id finds all sorts of expression.
Power, especially in the mist of chaos, savagery and lawlessness, deploys the voice of the Super Ego, as the voice of desperation attempting to bring the monster to heel.
In South Carolina, last week, nine people were gunned down in a brazen and wanton act of racial savagery. Of course the United States is once again in shame, attempting to overcome another hurdle in the struggle to eradicate racism. Power, of the kind used by the killer, is at the heart of the American culture. From his perspective, he was most likely attempting to bring order to what he saw as chaos. Just like the Super Ego, however, Roof's Id took over, as if there were no other options.
Of course, the allies would not have won the Second World War without the serious help from the Americans. And their military might must never be underestimated, in fact, on the ground, in the air and on the seas. However, replacing a colonial power, Great Britain, with another colonial model, with different goals objectives and means, does not mean that the U.S. has arrived at a state in which the national Ego, (in Freud's use of the term) balances the Super Ego and the Id. Replacing one addiction with another does not remove the quality of being dependent on an external power.
External power, whether in the form of the Super Ego or the Id, the former being the highly self-righteous one, the latter being the more sexual and base one, is not the preferred path to an adult balance from the Ego.
Clouding the issue of balance, in an individual or in a country, is the American preference to consider itself (themselves) exceptional. Exceptional does not feel comfortable with 'ordinary' or moderate or modest or balanced. Exceptional needs the extremes, whether of the Super Ego or the national Id, as expressed in the saturation of sexuality, including all violent expressions of sex, throughout the American culture
So the battle of the highly inflamed moralists among the religious fundamentalists versus the violent expression of the street gangs, the drug dealers and the anti-heroes captures both the American imagination and the political life of the nation. It, in fact, paralyses the country in an unresolving tension of two poles. And the more inflamed the actions of one set of forces, the more vehement the reaction and response of the other.
It was Melodie Beattie in her work, The Hero Within, who traced the life of many characters in American movies, novels and television dramas. And since she was searching for expressions of a series of archetypes, she concluded that the American culture was dominated by a conflict between the Victim and the Warrior, the former being the women and the latter being the men of the population.
Similarly, one could posit that the conflict within the American culture is also between the Super Ego and the Id, with the Ego having too little influence, given the attention paid to both of the other voices.
Pixar has just released its "Inside Out" movie in which the emotions are actually played by different characters, Lewis Black, for example, voices Anger, while Amy Poehler voices joy. An exemplary piece of animated drama to help adults and children find, listen to and respect their various emotional states, while also helping them detach from obsessions with any of them.
A similar and more geo-political drama, of the kind that finds characters playing Freud's Ego, Super Ego and Id, among the many conflicts in which the United States is engaged (too many of the hard power kind for many of us) would document  President Obama's heroic attempt to present the voice of the Ego, amidst the cacophony of screaming from both the Super Ego and the Id. Unfortunately, the Congress prefers not to align itself with a moderate, balanced, mature and effective Ego voice, preferring to grab short-term headlines with ideological and predictable and utterly insipid, both from a hawk and from a self-righteous perspective, polarized piece of history.
Obama does not seek, nor does he deserve dramatic headlines, given his consistent expression of the moderate voice in American political culture. Those whose opposition to him comprises both the self-righteous Super Ego of what they consider the high ground of moral purity, for example on abortion, or on gun rights, or the Id of the hawks who consistently call Obama "weak" in a manner reminiscent of the 'right' charges against President Jimmy Carter, another of the voices of the Ego that have lived in the White House.
Excising the volume and the intensity of the voices of both the Super Ego and the Id, in a culture now addicted to its own violent and extreme rhetoric and preferred choice of methods of resolving any dispute, is going to take generations. First, the country has to acknowledge that it is stuck in the morass of adoring both the Super Ego models in its fundamental churches, while those engaged in lawlessness and violence are merely choosing the opposite path from those of the self-righteous. We are bad, and we are proud of it! would be their slogan.
Voices that come from the moderate, complex middle, are insults to the headline writers, whose job depends on selling newspapers, and to do that, needs the most graphic and the most violent expression of another 'war' in the 72-point type needed to attract attention.
So one could also argue that underlying the American culture and history is the archetype of war, open, unending, violent, and heavily armed and financed. And within that culture of violence, one can and does find the vocabulary to argue (with public compliance) that church can and must be separated from state when everyone knows that such a separation is impossible in fact. One can also hear arguments around abortion in which each side literally and metaphorically seeks to kill the other, especially the pro-life forces seeking to destroy their pro-choice opponents when everyone knows that the Ego prefers no abortions, while at the same time, knowing that therapeutic abortions trump the back alley, unsanitary and unsavoury kind of the quacks.
We can hear arguments for and against the American "policeman of the world" model, as Super Ego voices compete with Id voices, while Ego voices are cast aside as irrelevant in the discussion.
Melodie Beattie's work researching individual lives from literature and movies and television posited the archetype of the Magician as one in which there is "enough" for everyone, a world view that contains no scarcity, from which all other archetypes spring.
Development along a continuum, following The Hero Within, also is dependent on the archetype of the Wanderer, that voice that seeks the wilderness for reflection, pause, honest self-evaluation, change and adaptability.
In the United States, and in too many other countries the voice of the Wanderer is considered "lost" and thereby self-excluded from any public discourse because the "wanderer" in somewhat uncertain, somewhat conflicted, somewhat ambiguous and somewhat in a space-time bubble.
There is no room in the American culture for such "eccentrics" and such off-beats, unless and until they produce a work of art or a piece of literature that captivates the culture, makes money and becomes famous.
It is time for the American culture, the body politic, to embrace the Ego, the Magician, and the Wanderer, if it is to succeed in overcoming the paralysis of racism, militarism, sexism, ageism, and a power ideology that obliterates the powerless from the public lens. No person can become healthy vacillating from Super Ego to Id and back again, nor can a culture develop a healthy character vacillating from Victim to Warrior, nor relegating the Wanderer to the status of unknown.
Blacks, whites, religious fundamentalists, Marines, and reflective thinkers...they are all needed if the Ego voice is to become the primary voice of the culture. And only then will the vacillation decrease, if not stop. However, perhaps in that dip in the extreme curves, maybe there will be enough time and space for more Ego voices to climb on board the national consciousness. And then, and then only, will the extremes give way to moderation.

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