Dr. Sigmund Freud was the father of psychoanalysis, who uncovered the sizzling cauldron of the unconscious mind.  He was a true pioneer, an intellectual revolutionary, who in my opinion deserves a status similar to that of Copernicus and Darwin.  Psychoanalysis is no longer in vogue, having been displaced by many "five-minute" therapies, upon which insurance companies smile.  Yet many of Freud's basic insights into the human mind live on and have increased in richness over time.

As I think about and try to understand the conversations I have had in recent years with many Americans, I find myself resorting to the good doctor's ideas.  One of the ego's defense mechanisms, appropriated to deal with the harshness of a painful experience or idea, is denial.  Many citizens are in denial about what is happening to their country. The cruel reality is that the United States of America is financially bankrupt, and the current administration, despite its glib public denials, is refusing to curtail spending. The national debt is swallowing us whole as the monster fish did Jonah.  The only difference is that we have not yet felt its gulp.  But we have been thoroughly anesthetized, and have drifted off into a dream sleep, believing that our wealth and prosperity will continue forever unabated.  "Let the good times continue to roll," we insist, "and never mind that the credit card bills are in the mail and will be arriving soon."  Somebody will pay them, we guess.

All kinds of interesting effects follow from financial bankruptcy:  the inability to support and to outfit a military; falling behind in the exploration of space and thereby occasioning an imbalance in defense readiness; the inability to protect our interests abroad; a decline in opportunity and overall quality of life; and untold human hardship and suffering.  All these projected outcomes follow from our current situation, do they not?  Am I missing something here?

A voice within you responds, "No!  You are exaggerating.  You have rung the emergency bell prematurely.  All is well.  No one should worry."  May I suggest that those who hear this voice and heed it are in deep, dark denial. The same mentality beset those who danced and made merry aboard the Titanic's top deck, while those in steerage were already waist deep in freezing water.

Can a country lose its will to survive?  Here again, Dr. Freud's ideas, which are pertinent to the individual psyche, provide us an illuminating model for interpreting the national life and pulse.  He writes of a "death instinct."  Humans, he argued, are driven by two opposing forces – one of life (Eros), which is a loving embrace of possibility, impelling us to satisfy our thirst, hunger, and reproductive needs and to defend ourselves against enemies – and the other of death (Thanatos), which is an urge toward inactivity, calm, and nonbeing.  When the latter predominates, one loses the will to continue.

Perhaps we can rephrase Freud's typology in terms of "culture."  Culture is about vibrance, creativity, ideas, and restless motion.  It is about the soaring human spirit.  Its icons are those like Mozart, Jefferson, Twain, Einstein, and, yes, Freud.  The unraveling of culture, on the other hand, is about decay, corruption, and parasitic infection.  It is about the welfare state, government tyranny, weakness and capitulation, the demise of the church, and citizens without the clarity of mind to realize what is being compromised and lost.

Do not be deluded.  There is a reality known as "traditional American culture."  It has been definitively shaped by biblical precepts and values, such (1) a beneficent deity who providentially oversees the country's well being, (2) a citizenry divinely ordained to advance the cause of liberty throughout the world, (3) an expansive sense of individual freedom imbued with a hefty dose of responsibility, (4) a spirit of ingenuity and hard work in confronting challenges, and (5) a helping hand extended to others. Note that these are ideas which have affirmatively shaped our identity as a people. There has not been perfect adherence to them to be sure, but what culture can claim that its formative ideas have never been distorted?

There are those among us who, believe it or not, have contempt for traditional American culture. Not only are they not committed to it, but they are also hostile to most everything for which it stands.  That is why there has been a litany of apologies by our government officials on the international front. It is also one reason for the radical push to secularize all public space.  These movers and shakers, and those in sympathy with them, have undertaken to re-interpret the Constitution, to restructure political and economic realities, to re-write history, to re-shape public education, and to impose upon us through "political correctness" mores which are antithetical to traditional modes of thought and practice. We should imagine these "looters," to use Ayn Rand's graphic term, shrouded in black and marching dirgelike to Chopin's Marche Funèbre in C Minor.  They represent the death wish in American culture.

The momentous struggle between life and death continues, and nowhere is it more intensely evident than in American culture at this very moment.  To which of these antipodal forces will you respond?

February 21, 2010