Sunday, April 26, 2009

Beyond Cultural Narcissism

Can Freud help us understand the sustained policy failures and the perpetual return to tried and failed attitudes that have tended to prevent new solutions to the ongoing conflicts in and around Jerusalem from being considered and implemented?

In The Future of an Illusion, Freud comments from a psychological perspective on the mechanisms of hostility to civilization. What he writes is subtle. First of all, he reminds us that there is hostility to civilization, i.e., to any political order or regnant paradigm, because all civilization rests on the repression of some urges. This is generally so, but it becomes more tricky--and more interesting--when one considers privations that are imposed on some rather than all. All nation states, so Freud, are based on the privations a minority imposes on a majority. The repression of a majority is accomplished by a kind of mental coercion in addition to other forms of violence. This mental force is often exerted in the name of the ideals of a civilization that represent the great accomplishments of the past.

“It is understandable,” writes Freud, “that the suppressed people should develop an intense hostility towards a culture whose existence they make possible by their work, but in whose wealth they have too small a share.” Written in 1927, this statement focuses on economic repression and the resentment it breeds, which leads to the hostility of an economically repressed majority toward the values of the wealthy elite. But the continuation shows that this observation may equally apply to a situation where the power inequilibrium between groups is enhanced by what Freud calls the narcissism of cultural ideals.

Whether it is the unequal distribution of wealth or other factors that lead to the imposition of privations on one group but not on the other, the effect on the relation between these groups seems to be the same. Here is how Freud describes the effects of an unequal distribution of privation.

In such conditions an internalization of the cultural prohibitions among the suppressed people is not to be expected. On the contrary, they are not prepared to acknowledge the prohibitions, they are intent on destroying the culture itself, and possibly even on doing away with the postulates on which it is based. The hostility of these classes to civilization is so obvious that it has caused the more latent hostility of the social strata that are better provided for to be overlooked. It goes without saying that a civilization which leaves so large a number of its participants unsatisfied and drives them into revolt neither has nor deserves the prospect of a lasting existence.

How does this illuminate the current situation in Jerusalem? After all, the Arab population of Jerusalem is, in demographic terms, barely a third of the population of the municipality and hence a minority. But the very demographic situation, created by repeated redrawings of the municipal boundaries (see, is the result of politics imposed on the Arab minority by the State of Israel and its security establishment (but not necessarily supported by every municipal administration). The demographic policies pursued by all Israeli governments since 1967 have been based on Zionist ideals, shaped in years of struggle, pioneering, and state-building. These policies amount to an attempt at disenfranchizing the Arab populations, but even it this weren't the case the ideals on which they are based cannot be shared by the Arab population. The natural and, according to Freud: inevitable, resistance of the Arabs to the civilizational ideals imposed on them by the Jewish state equally inevitably appears to the Jewish population as resistance to their ideal of civilization and hence as nihilistic and uncooperative.

Freud’s analysis of what one might call differential privation goes a long way toward explaining the miscommunication between Israeli governments and the Arab populations affected by policies based on the ideal of Jewish statehood. The sacrifices imposed on the Arabs are neither commensurate with the sacrifices imposed on the Jewish population, nor are they legitimized by ideals that would compensate the Arab minority for its material losses.

But Freud also speaks of a “more latent hostility of the social strata that are better provided for,” a hostility often overlooked. This points to the fact that the dominant group is not unambiguously committed to self-sacrifice, hard work, and the lasting existence of its civilization. The alienation of the dominated is accepted by the dominant not because it is the price to be paid by the dominated for the continued existence of the dominant civilization but rather despite the fact that it may well contribute to the undoing of the dominant civilization. Freud explains this counter-intuitive and counterproductive behavior by pointing to the narcissism of cultural ideals.

The narcissistic satisfaction provided by the cultural ideal is (…) among the forces which are successful in combating the hostility to culture within the cultural unit. This satisfaction can be shared in not only by the favoured classes, which enjoy the benefits of the culture, but also by the suppressed ones, since the right to despise the people outside it compensates them for the wrongs they suffer within their own unit. No doubt one is a wretched plebeian, harassed by debts and military service; but, to make up for it one is a Roman citizen, one has one’s share in the task of ruling other nations and dictating their laws.

Modern Israelis are not ancient Romans. But Freud argues that the narcissism of cultural ideals is endemic to all nation states:

On the strength of these differences (to wit: between cultural ideals) every culture claims the right to look down on the rest. In this way cultural ideals become a source of discord and enmity between different cultural units, as can be seen most clearly in the case of nations.

But they also act as glue in a disparate and disjointed society. The cultural ideals common to all Israelis would be insufficient to bridge the gap between religious and secular, Ashkenazic and Sephardic, rich and poor, were it not for the narcissism implicit in the sense of difference between Jews and Arabs. Were it not for this narcissism, it might be possible for many Jews and many Arabs to recognize their common interests, set aside concerns with the cultural ideals of their respective and conflicted pasts, and work toward reasonable solutions of problems that can only be solved if one overcomes one's cultural narcissism.

1 comment:

  1. This is all very nice, provided that we accept the theoretical framework articulated by Frued. But why should we do that? Freud was a great theorist--but his theorizing about culture was not and is not the primary focus of his scholarship or of his intellectual legacy.

    This piece would be a lot stronger, analytically, if it were not so slavishly dependent on theory.