Water Man Spouts

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Cindy Sheehan, Emile Durkheim's "Disorganized Dust of Individuals," and George Bush's Secondary Narcissism (Part 1)

Cindy Sheehan, Emile Durkheim's "Disorganized Dust of Individuals," and George Bush's Secondary Narcissism (Part One)

The arrest of Cindy Sheehan at the 2006 "State of the Union" address in Washington, DC has sparked a renewed interest in the tactics and activities of the nation's best known anti-war activist. The debate over Ms. Sheehan was found not only on the corporate media sources, including Fox, CNN, and MSNBC, but also on the internet.
Perhaps the most surprising responses were found on the Democratic Underground, a discussion forum that tends to appeal to progressive democrats and the far left. A small but very vocal minority attempted to discredit Ms. Sheehan's recent efforts, from this week's arrest to her recent meeting with a South American head of state. I read with amusement the "Cindy does NOT speak for me" threads -- as if Ms. Sheehan has ever claimed to speak for anyone but herself -- and with great interest a thread by Will Pitt, which expressed a sense of "awe" that the DU "community" would not be more supportive of Cindy's efforts.
There is really no need to respond to the asinine "anti-Cindy" comments, which may be proof that progressive democrats span the intelligence spectrum and include some disturbed individuals ...... but it might be worth looking closer at Cindy Sheehan in terms of a couple points raised by Mr. Pitt.
Most of the media coverage refers to Sheehan as an "anti-war activist." This is a result of her son Casey being killed in Iraq. Over the summer months, Cindy began a lonely and painful quest to meet with President Bush, to question him on the reasons the US invaded Iraq. Her journey quickly caught the media's attention, and the growing anti-war movement embraced Cindy Sheehan. More, she became the central point in the national discussion, causing those who were undecided and pro-war to question if the war was "just," and if it was worth the cost in human terms.
Since the summer months, the quick "shelf life" of news stories -- which is dramatically different today, with 24-hour-a-day news channels, than in the days of Vietnam -- resulted in Cindy's camping out near the President's Texas ranch to fade from public's consciousness. Thus, Sheehan began to move further into the camp of the progressive left, something that we need not place a value judgement upon, as the Sean Hannitys and DLCers tend to do. What Cindy Sheehan does is entirely her own business, and as an individual, I would agree with Mr. Pitt that democrats should support her ..... even if we do not embrace her every move.
Yet, because she is a symbol of the anti-war movement, and because she does have the potential to do more good for the entire nation, it might be worth our while to examine how she -- or other parents in a similar circumstance -- can approach the issue of the Bush/Cheney aggression in Iraq. I would suggest that we do so in the context of the "community" that Mr. Pitt mentioned, although I would advocate taking an expanded definition of that word.
In political/social campaigns, there is a simple rule that holds true, no matter if one is discussing an election or a policy debate. In each, there are three groups: {1} those who always support you/your idea; {2} those who always oppose you/your idea; and {3} the undecided. In a campaign, one does not invest much time or energy in appealing to group #1; none in appealing to group #2; and instead focus on appealing to group #3, because they are the ones who will determine the outcome of the contest.
Cindy Sheehan's greatest strength last summer was in appealing to group #3 in America: those who were beginning to question why the administration had brought us to war in Iraq .... because the WMD lies were being exposed, and the numbers of dead and injured soldiers was growing at a rate that could not be ignored.
Cindy's strengths in conveying her anti-war message was simply an direct. A mother's pain caused the nation to respond with compassion, which the administration seemed cold and detached from the suffering of a woman who everyone could view as their sister, daughter, niece, or neighbor.
She is not, as Mr. Pitt reminds us, a professional. She did not go to college to study the art of being a mother of a soldier killed in an immoral war. No sane person could think she enjoys her position. Thus, I do not intend for this to be taken as critical of her as an individual. I do think that it would be good for those around her, especially those who are more media-savvy, to discuss her options for advocating the anti-war message. Her choices are to attempt to appeal to group #1 to step up their anti-war activities (thus subjecting herself to the harsh critics on the right and even some on the left), or to re-focus her attention to doing what she did, intentionally or not, last summer -- force the people who are undecided about the war to decide what direction the country will move in.
In his classic book "The Sane Society," Erich Fromm starts with an assumption that individuals in any society can experience sanity or insanity. He expands this basic assumption about individual mental health for societies: if one believes that a group of sane individuals creates a "sane community," then it follows a group of insane individuals creates an insane community. Thus, a group of sane communities creates a sane society, and a group of insane communities creates an insane society.
In the 50 years since Fromm's book was published, the psychiatric community has made great advances in understanding mental health and mental illness. For the sake of this discussion, I am not concerned about the affective and schizophrenic disorders; instead, let's focus on personality and adjustment disorders.
Those familiar with Fromm know that he diagnosed much of the pathology of modern, western society as being the result of "being governed by the fear of the anonymous authority of conformity .... We have ... no convictions of our own, almost no individuality, almost no sense of self." (The Sane Society; page 96)
Fromm also relied heavily upon the works of pioneer sociologist Emile Durkheim, including his description of anomie, a state where societies' standards of conduct and belief are either weak or lacking, and where individuals are isolated, anxious, and disoriented. Fromm notes that Durkheim, while "neither a political nor a religious radical," makes "one of the most penetrating diagnoses of the capitalist culture .... that in modern industrial society the individual and the group have ceased to function satisfactorily ..." As the social structure breaks down, the individuals follow "a restless movement, a planless self-development, an aim of being which has no criterion of value .... (until that society becomes, in Durkheims's classic description) 'a disorganized dust of individuals'." (The Sane Society; page 191)
Fromm also considers the works of Lewis Munford ("The Conduct of Life") and A.R. Heron ("Why Men Work") on this subject. He looks beyond the mere killing of the body as the definition of suicide. There is a death of the spirit in those "who resign themselves to a life devoid of thinking, ambition, pride, and personal achievement ..... to the death of attributes which are distinctive elements of human life." Finally, this "emptiness is perhaps what made 'Death of a Salesman' so poignant to the metropolitan American audience that witnesses it." (The Sane Society; page 196)
Cindy Sheehan's strength was her refusal to allow her son's death to be meaningless. The emptiness in her life, caused by Casey's death in a meaningless war, became the foundation for her search for meaning .... and that is without question what made her journey so poignant to the American audience that witnessed it.
Cindy became a living, breathing, feeling example of what Fromm defined as the passions of life. Going beyond the obvious and indisputable biological needs that humans share with other animals -- thirst, hunger, and sleep -- and the central need of the Freudian interpretation -- sex -- Fromm focused on two "passions": the need for love, and the need to "attempt to answer the problem of human existence." (The Sane Society; page 35)
An individual's need for love begins at very least by birth, and continues throughout life. Initially, the infant is nurtured by the mother's love, then the family, the extended family/clan (Mr. Pitt's community), and potentially by a sane society.
Fromm agreed with Harry Stack Sullivan (the pioneer American psychiatrist, largely removed from his deserved position in our society because he was gay), that children tend to gain the ability to love others in a mature capacity at about the age of 8 or 9. Until then, children tend to love others in terms of their own needs, rather than as distinct individuals with needs of their own. This is "primary narcissism," which Fromm and Sullivan recognized as a necessary part of healthy human development.
An unhealthy phenomenon occures when this narcissism is carried on to later life. It happens when a child fails to learn that other people's feelings, needs, and indeed lives are just as important to them, as the child's to him/herself. Fromm refers to this as "secondary narcissism," and believes it is at the root of most individual and societal pathology. (The Sane Society; page 40) I would suggest that we are beginning to see the stark contrasts in human potential that the Cindy Sheehan -- George Bush equation brought into focus for America.
Indeed, Fromm noted that the need to comprehend the meaning of life was at the root of the arts and religions of various societies. Again, he recognizes both healthy and unhealthy potentials: individuals and societies can be either creative or destructive in their arts and religions. In essence a person with a healthy ability to love (Cindy) will tend to be creative and productive; while the person who lacks the capacity for healthy love (Bush's secondary narcissism) will tend to be destructive. From notes that destructiveness "is only an alternative to creativeness ... (and that) both answer to the same need for transcendence...." (The Sane Society; pages 40 & 42)
I would suggest that we could apply the "Cindy versus George" equation to one of the more significant factors in Fromm's view on a societies' potential for sanity, which is in his comparison of matriarchal and patriarchal cultures. It is important to keep in mind that each have positive and negative potentials; we should not ask people to believe that these are simple issues. They are indeed complex, but important for us to answer as individuals and as societies.
Fromm compares the aspects of matriarchal and patriarchal societies by examining parents' relationships with their children. Mothers tend to love all of their children equally. Although one child may have a particular talent, and another may suffer from a disabling weakness, the mother tends to love them both "with the same right to love and care." Fromm notes that this aspect of matriarchal society results in individuals with "a sense of affirmation for life, and (a) freedom and equality that pervades the matriarchal society." The negative aspects are "being bound to nature, to blood and soil, ... (and thus) blocked from developing...individuality and ... reason." (The Sane Society; page 48)
Fathers tend to be different. Fromm notes that fathers tend to favor the son that best lives up to his expectations. This results in a competition among siblings for the father's love. Fromm believed the positive aspects of patriarchal society were "reason, discipline, conscience, and individualism," while the negative potentials were "hierachy, oppression, inequality, (and) submission." (The Sane Society; page 50)
Cindy Sheehan has the potential to bring these issues to the national discussion on the Iraqi war, as well as to the other questions that we as a society must discuss and debate in 2006. While the responsibility clearly does not belong to her, alone --- and it is foolish for her critics to believe that it somehow does -- it is true that she is in a unique position to force the debate. I would hope the people around her, especially those with more experience in the arts of public debate, would help her bring her natural strengths foreward


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