Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

October 26, 2009

The Long Blog: Background of this perspective on risk, the role of neurosis

Filed under: Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on October 26, 2009

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)

The Long Blog: “Basic features” of US risk and resilience (October 21)

The Long Blog: Four preliminary deductions from seven premises (October 23)

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Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 26, 2009 @ 3:43 am


What the hell is he doing and where on earth is he going? I can imagine the question being widely muttered.

Soviet neurosis was an important focus of Kennan’s analysis. The second part of his Long Telegram explains the origins and implications of this neurosis. The remainder of his argument largely depends on acceptance of this crucial diagnosis.

Kennan was more fortunate in his adversary than I am (than we are). He could point to a strangely behaving and compelling “other.” He could describe their behavior, declare them neurotic, and likely receive a sympathetic hearing.

I am pointing to you — and you and you (especially if you work at DHS) — all of us — and arguing we are, if not neurotic, at least experiencing a neurosis. In a comment on Friday’s post Arnold Bogis worried I was edging toward an excessively external take on homeland security. Instead I have dived deeply internal… and some may perceive weirdly and unhelpfully internal. I, obviously, share some of the concern.

Even if my analysis of American neurosis — and the particular role of homeland security and DHS in this neurosis — is accurate, what value is there in the argument? What can any of us, all of us, do about it? Especially what can we do about this neurosis in how we protect the border, enforce immigration laws, prevent terrorism, distribute FEMA grants, etc. etc.?

Well, I have already gotten far enough along on Wednesday’s post that I have an answer. But it is, if anything, more pretentiously pseudo-intellectual than today’s use of Kennan, Jung and Freud.

Is the contribution foundational or is it silly (or worse)? Maybe this is the intellectual box canyon I predicted at the start. But while I am a bit worried, I don’t think so. Effective policy and strategy has to be rooted in fundamental truths. Our national neurosis related to domestic safety and security, and our effort to deny the neurosis is, I perceive, a hard truth. Grappling with it will be fundamental to whatever we decide to do in homeland security.

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 26, 2009 @ 5:56 am

This is a brilliant and amazing post. First, note that heirs of JUNG have agreed to publish his “RED BOOK” which should be of interest. Second, six of the 12 MDs produced by my high school class of 53 ended up as Psychiatrists. In reunions they all concluded that field is now dominated by chemistry as opposed to other treatments. If books like “Prozac Nation” are correct then almost 40% of all adult Americans take some kind of psychotropic drugs usually prescribed by unqualified MD general practioners heavily lobbied and influenced by their patiences and the detail men and women (usually very attractive physically and not necessarily unwilling to use that in their lobbying) employed by PHARMA to get their products used. And then of course there is illegal drug use in USA which appears to be the world’s best illegal drug market. Disclosure, take a daily Aspirin (acteacelic [sic] acid first developed by Bayer]!

Okay–so where are we now? From the post:

“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”

I will always wonder if the word “inferiority” rather than “insecurity” might have been a better choice by Kennan. Less psychological and more historically accurate for Russians, then and now.
What I do see is that the term “insecurity” may well have application, however, in many ways to the Islamic World and the USA. Admittedly almost totatlly ignorant of Islamic World when events of 9/11 occurred by trying desperately to catch up. I am rereading William McNeil’s 1963 history “The Rise of the West” and fascinated by its take on whys and wherefores of western civilization but also discusses E. Asia and S. Asian developments and impacts. I had actually forgotten how much time he spends on China and India. Also how much time in the book he devotes to Islam and its impact on Western Civilization. What is interesting is that there does seem to be an element in the long struggle of Christendom and Islam that is driven by insecurity of each system. He flatly argues implicitly for a more self confident belief system in the EAST. Not sure if correct but of interest. Whether Freud and JUNG and their take on human kind is correct they are difficult to avoid taking away many of their insights. And of course would be interesting to learn whether they have impacted the Islamic World in any way.
None-the-less there does seem to be some deep rooted sense of “ineriority” driving both Islam and the USA. Perhaps this is erroneous but hope studied more. The “Declinists” who advocate that the USA is in long term decline have many arguments that seem driven by insecurity as much as anything else. The one clear advantage Islam appears to have over Christendom and perhaps this is the root of Catholicism efforts to restrict birth control is in demographics. I would argue that the demographics of Islamic world are unsustainable but perhaps it is otherwise at least in short term. And of course today the demographics of Russian population (perhaps caused by many things including environmental damages from the 70 year rule of Soviet system and alcoholism–drug of choice still) I personally believe are destroying that nation-states future despite its other resources, and condemning it to a lesser role on world stage.
How does this relate then to “Homeland Insecurity” when we (US) is capable of having the best Homeland Security in world for many reasons, even now with help of two oceans? Well for me what this thread and blog is all about is that if the oldest and richest country ever in World History so far cannot get Homeland Security right then that failure must not be within our stars but within our selves. Perhaps I have drifted off from Phil’s take but I think not. Do we (US) have the will and capacity including funding and thinking to derive the best Homeland Security for the modern age? And its does seem some new take on “Resilience” may provide benefits that far exceed any costs or other efforts. So here’s to other commnetators and their take on this post!

Comment by Mark Chubb

October 26, 2009 @ 3:51 pm

Another exceptional effort, Phil. I am awed by the depth and breadth of your scholarship.

I prefer to think of neuroses as “frozen frames”. For our purposes, frames must be both flexible and fungible. Resilience implies the abilities to expand or contract a frame as well as the ability to select or substitute alternate frames.

Reading Jung’s words today gives one a spooky feeling as we look back on what we as a nation have become. The dominant frames of our public discourse have arguably left us ill-equipped to see much less accept alternate perspectives on our predicament.

I am not so sure insecurity has become the dominant frame for our current dilemmas. Indeed, it could be argued that a lack of humility rather than lack of either security or ability lies at the heart of our current situation.

We find ourselves today in a situation in which might does not make right. We have become too big to fail, and are arguably too big, complex, and pluralistic to succeed too.

The lack of a single, simple, unifying frame, much less one that gives us pause to consider those of others, may be the single distinguishing characteristic of the American enterprise. We should wonder how resilience will help us respond to this dilemma?

Comment by Arnold Bogis

October 26, 2009 @ 11:29 pm

I find myself torn–I agree with the main point of this post but not the historical arguments leading up to the conclusion.

But seeing that Cold War historical analysis is not the point of this discussion, I will table my objections to paragraphs 4 and 5 (for now and online…).

What I do find incredibly insightful is the notion of DHS as totem. I agree with Phil that many (if not most) of the post-9/11 concerns have become embodied by DHS–regardless of the actual limited means of that particular organization. Once past the borders, there is little that DHS can do to prevent a terrorist attack. But that had not prevented it from becoming the symbol of every perceived excess and deficiency of government anti-terror policies in the past 8 years.

At the same time, any attempt to reform, improve, reorganize, reconsider, etc. DHS and other homeland security functions is often met with accusations of “pre-9/11” mentality.

How possibly can a young department struggling to achieve internal cohesion and external excellence balance these concerns?

I eagerly await Wednesday’s post…(not to put too much pressure on Mr. Palin).

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 27, 2009 @ 5:20 am

I appreciate Arnold’s decision to focus more on the psycho-social analysis rather than the historical analysis. Each is fraught and can certainly be debated. But the origins and outcomes of the Cold War are, I would suggest, so diverse as to be beyond certain reckoning.

(And if the debate is aimed at increased understanding — rather than certain reckoning — we should all benefit. Any historical analogy — any analogy at all — is valuable to the extent it spurs fresh thinking. If we fight over the analogy (e.g. Munich v. Vietnam) we have mistaken the role and purpose of analogy.)

My intention, ala Mark Chubb, is to try out some new frames and angles on our present reality.

Having said this, if Arnold or others disagree with my core thesis, “we are increasingly neurotic in our effort to justify inconsistencies between our self-image and experience;” then I expect the remainder of my effort will fall apart.

Bill Cumming closes his comment with a pregnant reference. Cassius says to his erstwhile friend, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves…”

The context for this famous line (Julius Caesar, Act I, scene 2) is Cassius recruiting the noble Brutus to betray Caesar, who he loves. The explicit justification is to defend the Republic from a tyrant. But the “lean and hungry” Cassius does not make a constitutional argument. Instead he appeals to the vanity and envy of Brutus.

The unresolved, even unrecognized, neurosis of Brutus is his principal vulnerability.

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 27, 2009 @ 6:45 am

Your statement Phil in comment on your post:
Having said this, if Arnold or others disagree with my core thesis, “we are increasingly neurotic in our effort to justify inconsistencies between our self-image and experience;” then I expect the remainder of my effort will fall apart.

Whether neuroses is involved or not there certainly is “Congnitive dissonance” occurring in population at large and those in positions of governance on HS and resilience. Perhaps the nuclear Priesthood is another resevoir of such. In other words justfying work on what could be destructive to civilization itself. Still US must try and resolve its neuroses or cognitive dissonance in an effort to lead the world on how the leading democracy (republic) goes about its self-defense. If we don’t (self-defend) don’t count on others to do it for US.

Comment by Mark Chubb

October 27, 2009 @ 10:26 am

Phil, I think your argument remains well and truly intact, at least from where I sit. I agree that the point of this discussion is to consider the frames, not the data. Disagreements about interpretations of the data should help us understand whether we are getting anywhere.

As for your thesis that “we are increasingly neurotic in our effort to justify inconsistencies between our self-image and experience,” it may be helpful to question whose frames are frozen as well as what those frames might be. As I tried to suggest, I think part of the problem is that we have not agreed on a dominant frame for the national debate about homeland security. Resilience might help us think strategically about this problem if it can provide a basis for reconciling (without necessarily resolving) conflicts between the competing frames being offered up.

I certainly think some people would have us believe that the nation faces some sort of existential threat. But as I have contended in previous comments, I just don’t see the evidence for this, at least from an outside source. (I do agree our adversaries would like this to be the case though.) On the other hand, our strengths have become our weaknesses in ways that portend ill for our future if we do not recognize and correct course.

I remain unconvinced as well that the competition between frames constitutes evidence of (much less the cause of) widespread cognitive dissonance as Bill seems to suggest. For this to be true, more people would have to be tuned into and participating in the debate. From where I sit, they are more distracted than engaged. Some confusion exists, but this seems to me to be less an artefact of disconnects between people’s beliefs and reality than a result of constantly shifting their attention from one crisis to the next.

Neuroses afflict individuals not societies. We can suggest by analogy that widespread neurotic behavior reflects a neurotic disposition on the part of a culture (as indeed I think Kennan was suggesting vis a vis the Soviets), but it may be of little value to argue that we as a nation have become neurotic.

On the other hand, it may be very useful indeed to question why people cling to one frame over another. This will help us understand how that frame becomes less flexible and indeed freezes over time.

This exercise would, however, require us to elaborate in more detail the frames in play in our national debate about homeland security. I think, Phil, you attempted to do this with your post on basic features. However, these features may be common to multiple frames, which could be part of what we’re struggling with in the current conversation.

To illustrate my point, we might reasonably wonder how the globalization frame informs our discussion. We could contrast this, for instance, with the global equity frame represented by the Millennium Development Goals and conventions on climate change. The emerging threat frame incorporates elements of these two to conjure up worries about the future influence of China and India.

I am sure with a little effort we could elaborate a number of other frames with which to evaluate the applicability and utility of resilience as a strategic orientation. I hope this provides a way forward in our thinking.

Comment by christopher tingus

October 27, 2009 @ 1:28 pm

In these unchartered waters of the 21st century, not surpised by the greed of Wall Street, the fed, the central bankers or those who have sworn by pledge in oath to uphold the Constitution as written and presented by our insightful forefathers….

….as I work at my desk addressing global waste water and water treatment contractual requirements for governments and commercial interests whereby I am astonished at so, so many who do not even have access to a clean glass of water and many without food….

I am listening to every word of hope and encouragement by Jack Kennedy on a cd of his numerous speeches and his astute “wit” of his news conferences some forty-seven years ago and one would hope that today there would certainly be – much motivation given our political an economic environment to reduce dissonance – however we lack the leadership in clarity as well as truthfulness and commitment to adhere to the principles laid forth by our forefathers – and most importantly, the Judeao-Christian principles emphasizing the respect for the dignity of fellow human being….

The discussion herein is indeed worthy of sharing perspectives, however unfortunately just as any other form of manmade government since Babylon, the spend…spend…mentality and the tax…tax…tax mentality is strikingly depicted by runaway deficits and higher and higher interest rates and subsequent inflation….inflation and an imporverished and beloved nation and its most charitable people who have been the beacon of hope to the oppressed, now finding themselves the oppressed!

We are in great peril!

I watched the candidates debating and vying for Teddy Kennedy’s seat last night here in Taxachusetts with its mandated health care for all and soaring costs and not one of the candidates have a clue to the resilience and difficult choices which are a prerequisite if we are to all keep away from harm’s way – the financial burden each of us will carry, the inevitable biological terrorist attack we fear and most probably a World War conflagration which is man’s failure despite all the scholars and policy makers – look up the word “repent” and then each of us should be reading our Bibles for we have all sinned especially those who should know better – we shall pay a dear price – let us pray….

God Bless America!

Christopher Tingus
64 Whidah Drive
Harwich, MA 02645 USA

Comment by Edward M. Thomas

October 27, 2009 @ 3:09 pm

As has been referenced, self-awareness is difficult. The deeper one’s neurosis, the more difficult self-awareness. If the neurosis is sufficiently entrenched, it will come packaged with a variety of delusions. Victimization is a popular part of many packages. Perceiving that others, especially those in authority, have targeted you for oppression is a common feature of being a victim. Some “Big Daddy” somewhere is not to the Daddy’s job of protecting us. I would rather be a grownup and not blame others. I read recently there is evidence that depression is contagious. Why not neurosis? Most visits to most blog sites provide plenty of evidence of an epidemic. Someone else is always to blame. One of the things I like about HLSwatch is how the contributors seem to be self-critical and looking for systematic answers, not attacking people. Most of the commentators share the characteristic. Those that don’t are clear exceptions that clarify the rule. Self-criticism is the best way to prevent victimization.

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 27, 2009 @ 4:25 pm

I have not review the current version of the NIPP closely or any of the past NAR (National Annual Reviews) [that may be incorrect terminology] to see the take on resilience. I NAR for 2009 is in preparation and all knowledgeable talk of WHITE HOUSE interest in resilience. Anyone who has review the current NIPP [or past one–2004] for resilience analysis or current or past NARs?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 27, 2009 @ 6:47 pm

Regarding frames and multiple frames: I like frames. I like multiple frames. I am trying to use Kennan’s frame to help us take a new look at our current situation. I like taking different frames, from different angles, and getting different perspectives on the same object or multiple objects.

I am familiar with intelligent, capable, insightful people who find my framing tendency self-indulgent, time-wasting, and pretty much useless. Most of these individuals have, by sometime in their late-twenties or early thirties, crafted a frame that has served them very effectively the vast majority of the time. They can usually fit a problem inside their frame and deal with it successfully… at least from their perspective.

I sometimes envy my friends with their solid single frame (or two or three). They can often solve a problem while I am still framing it. Every once in a while — but not really that often — they can also make the problem worse by forcing their frame on the problem. A very few times some of these friends have broken their frames in this process. We then have some wonderful conversations about the possibility of some new frames. I share some of mine, they appreciate the process.

It is my experience that until the original frame is broken, these folks are very uninterested in even one new frame, much less multiple frames.

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