Editorial Note: This is the fourth in a series of posts on resilience as a proposed focus for a homeland security strategy. This strategizing is organized around the approach taken by George Kennan in a seminal 1946 strategy document. Links to prior posts are provided below.
In the second part of his Long Telegram George Kennan argues, “At bottom of Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs is traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity.” (Telegraphing, like twittering, tended to dispense with articles.)
Kennan argues that understanding the sources and symptoms of this neurosis will allow US decision-makers to avoid unnecessarily provoking the Soviets and potentially take advantage of the Kremlin’s neurosis. An effective strategy engages reality, even if the reality that matters is neurotic.
Modern psychology has moved away from the mid-20th Century concept of neurosis. But when Kennan wrote, neurosis was understood as a manifestation of unresolved conflict between unconscious motivations and explicit purpose. A contemporary psychologist explains, “neurosis means poor ability to adapt to one’s environment, an inability to change one’s life patterns, and the inability to develop a richer, more complex, more satisfying personality.”
The environment in which the United States finds itself has changed dramatically since 1946. Since, at least, the mid-1970s the speed of change has been rapid and the direction erratic. We have not adapted gracefully to the change. We resist changing our national life patterns. Similar to the Soviet leadership, so helpfully analyzed by Kennan, we are increasingly neurotic in our effort to justify inconsistencies between our self-image and experience.
The strategic context emerging from this change has not, by-in-large, been friendly to the attitudes and habits Americans developed after World War II. We have become more and more dependent on increasingly expensive foreign sources of energy. Other nations, and alliances of nations, have emerged as competent competitors. Our comparative advantage in a wide array of fields has narrowed or we find ourselves at a disadvantage. An industrial economy has been replaced with a consumer economy that can seem precarious. Our financial indebtedness, both foreign and domestic, has increased dramatically. Our unequalled military prowess has been unable to forestall the first successful foreign attack on the continental US since the War of 1812. Even the “defeat” of our long-time Soviet enemy has not seemed to produce a practical return.
We are, undoubtedly, the most powerful nation on the planet. But it sure doesn’t feel like it.
In Man and His Symbols, Carl Gustav Jung offers,
In order to sustain his creed, contemporary man pays the price in a remarkable lack of introspection. He is blind to the fact that, with all his rationality and efficiency, he is possessed by “powers” that are beyond his control. His gods and demons have not disappeared at all; they have merely got new names. They keep him on the run with restlessness, vague apprehensions, psychological complications, an insatiable need for pills, alcohol, tobacco, food — and, above all, a large array of neuroses…
Mankind is now threatened by self-created and deadly dangers that are growing beyond our control. Our world is, so to speak, dissociated like a neurotic… Western man, becoming aware of the aggressive will to power of the East, sees himself forced to take extraordinary measures of defense, at the same time as he prides himself on his virtue and good intentions.
What he fails to see is that it is his own vices, which he has covered up by good international manners, that are thrown back in his face… shamelessly and methodically. What the West has tolerated, but secretly and with a slight sense of shame (the diplomatic lie, systematic deception, veiled threats), comes back into the open and in full measure from the East and ties us up in neurotic knots. It is the face of his own evil shadow that grins at Western man from the other side…”
Jung does not — and certainly I do not — suggest resolving the neurosis by denying our good intentions or presumption to virtue. But neither will any resolution come from a willful denial of our struggle to square what we believe with what we have done or perceive we must do.
We have in the Department of Homeland Security and its various concerns a totem giving form to a wide range of unresolved conflicts: liberty v. security, insider v. outsider, privacy v. transparency, individual v. community, local v. national, good v. evil… the list of dichotomies could continue. Never before has a single government agency served as a repository for so many potential neuroses. It’s predisposition to neurosis is especially strong because of its domestic — we might say, self-absorbed — focus.
Nearly a century has passed since Sigmund Freud wrote an essay (later to become Totem and Taboo) entitled, On Some Points of Agreement between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics. In this he offers that totemism is an elaborate, ritualized effort to resolve the deep ambivalence that exists in most fearing what we most love.
In creating the totem — is this why St. Elizabeth’s was selected as DHS headquarters? — we are attempting to externalize and objectify the ambivalence that is the source of our neurosis. But without great care, the totem can merely institutionalize both ambivalence and neurosis. Something more is required to resolve the tension.
On Wednesday we will consider how to move beyond projecting our neuroses on the totem and engage our problems more directly.
Previous posts in this series:
The Long Blog: A strategy of resilience (October 19)